The Pedigrew family is in a state of suspended animation. As free blacks in 1843 Kentucky, they own property and can work for wages. But they can't be outside at night, they can't close the doors on their home or storage shed, and they can't cross Lincoln Creek — in fact, none of them can even dip a toe in the waters which border the county. Freedom clearly isn't always as free as you'd think.
The Pedigrews' bizarrely curtailed freedom is punishment for their role in helping slaves escape to the North. As Keith Josef Adkins' Safe House opens, this sentence is just days away from being lifted. Any transgression by a Pedigrew now will bring ruin to the family.
Adkins is a canny writer with a gift for creating distinctive characters. Director Melissa Maxwell and the cast use that gift to tell a taut, engrossing story about the price of freedom. Addison Pedigrew (Daniel Morgan Shelley) is the head of the household, a smooth-talking and hard-working cobbler with dreams of opening a shoe shop in the family cabin once life returns to normal — a stock hero for certain, except that Shelley brings a rasping edge to Addison's optimism. He's not so much determined as he is ruthless, especially when it comes to his younger brother, Frank (Will Cobbs). Frank is impetuous and eager to resume his normal life, going so far as to break the curfew by swimming in the creek. But there's more to Frank than meets the eye; he has a carefully hidden dream that he nurses right under Addison's watchful gaze. The brothers' contentious relationship is refereed by their Aunt Dorcas (Kelly Taffe), an almost stereotypical "strong black woman" — and yet Adkins has given Dorcas her own secret, one that Taffe regretfully confronts in the second act with spectacularly restrained tenderness.
Frank's swimming expeditions are discovered by Bracken (Michael Sean McGuinness), the town deputy. McGuinness is a big man, but he carries himself awkwardly, his head pulled back as if he's hesitant to confront the Pedigrews directly. He's a constant presence in their lives, checking on them in the evening and the morning to be sure that they're following the rules. Bracken strains to make these meetings as friendly as possible, but how friendly can you get with your oppressor?
It's difficult to pin down the moment when you realize the Pedigrews may as well live in the Ville or College Hill in 2015. Is it the fact that walking in the street is a risk the Pedigrew brothers have to chance every day? Is it the panic in Addison's face when he realizes the door of their shed is broken? This is the sort of minor infraction that Bracken will notice and report back to the sheriff, which will result in a search of the house. Is it the familiar refrain of Bracken's constant reassurances that he's just doing his job as he conducts one such search, absolving himself of any responsibility? Adkins keeps you on your toes, though, giving Bracken his own wounded humanity even then. Addison tries to stop Bracken from searching their bedroom — the one door they can keep closed — and Bracken hurls him to the ground. Something wretched twists across Bracken's face as he does it; is it regret at what he's done, or just regret that the situation has reached that point?
The fact that the Pedigrews end up harboring another runaway slave is a foregone conclusion. Addison frequently says that he'd rather slit his throat than fritter away his dream. The fact that as the family optimist he feels those are his only choices — death or a shoe shop — is the sort of binary thinking that results from being cornered. But why Addison never considers life as an option, that's on him. And what he does to hold on to his dream as long as possible — well, he knew slitting his own throat was always a possibility.
Safe House Written by Keith Josef Adkins. Directed by Melissa Maxwell. Through February 8 at the Loretto-Hilton Center, 130 Edgar Road. Tickets are $50 to $65. Call 314-968-4925 or click here.