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PTC’s ‘Safety Net’ emotional and exceptional (and you can see it at home!)

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PTC’s ‘Safety Net’ emotional and exceptional (and you can see it at home!) (photo courtesy PTC/© magnus stark, 2020)

BANGOR – One of the most challenging and beautiful theatrical works to grace an area stage in years took place at Penobscot Theatre last weekend. Alas, it saddens me to say that due to the current circumstances, you won’t be able to watch it from a seat in the Bangor Opera House.

That’s the situation with Penobscot Theatre Company’s new production. “Safety Net,” a play written by Daryl Lisa Fazio and directed by PTC’s own Tricia A. Hobbs. While the measures taken in recent days due to the spread of the COVID-19 virus mean that the Opera House seats will remain unfilled, PTC is hoping to take unprecedented action of its own.

Here’s how it’s going to work. Through this next week – up to March 22 – PTC will be presenting a livestream of the production at regular showtimes. From Wednesday through Sunday, March 18-22, the company will present a real-time video performance of the show. Tickets can be purchased in the usual way via the PTC website – Purchasers will be given instructions, a link and a password dedicated specifically to the night of their ticket purchase. It might not be the usual manner in which you see a play, but I’d advise you to take advantage of it.

Because any way you slice it, this is a remarkable piece of theatre.

(Full disclosure: I can’t speak to the experience of watching this show on video. I was one of four non-production personnel in the house for one of the early performances. But if watching it on a screen is even a tenth as impactful as seeing it on stage, it will be worth every cent and every second you spend on it.)

Chris Dove (Heather Astbury-Libby) is a firefighter in a small town in Alabama. She lives in a house that she is perpetually in the process of fixing up, with everything existing in various states of doneness. Her mother Xenia (Julie Arnold Lisnet) has recently moved in; she’s dealing with some pain issues courtesy of a bad back.

Chris is a relentless worker, putting in long shifts without complaint. Foremost among her concerns with regards to the community is the drug problem; opioid abuse is a pervasive issue. It’s personal for her – her brother’s longtime struggles with addiction came to a tragic conclusion – and she won’t let it go. Even as she’s in line for a big promotion – one that would come so much easier if she’d just tone it down – she can’t help but fight.

Into this moment comes Val (Amy Roeder), an addict whose life was saved by Chris some three months previously. Following that close call and subsequent rescue, Val has been clean – 91 days and counting – and all she wants is to repay her savior, despite Chris’s insistence that it is unnecessary.

But as it turns out, Val can be of some help after all; the plans for someone to look after Xenia during the day have fallen through and Chris is in dire straits. After some consideration, she asks Val to do it. The rapport between Val and Xenia is instant, while the friendship between Val and Chris grows exponentially.

But there’s a secret being kept – a secret whose long-cast shadow may have real and dire ramifications for these new friendships. All of it revolves around the destructive power of opioids, both on the users and on the people who love them.

“Safety Net” is a legitimately powerful theatrical experience. It is a story built on real-world ills, driven by details that will likely ring familiar to more than a few. The emotions that those details can elicit are harsh and raw; you won’t mistake this for a light romp. This show evokes feeling through honesty, challenging you in a way that only the theatre can.

It’s another outstanding effort from director Tricia Hobbs, who has an uncanny ability to make emotionally challenging pieces easily accessible. She’s got a real gift for naturalism; a play like “Safety Net” is a perfect vehicle for her sensibilities. And even in a show like this, a single-set piece with just three actors, she still finds ways to create striking stage pictures.

Speaking of those three actors, the work done by this cast is nothing short of exceptional. Astbury-Libby has graced the PTC stage on many occasions, but she this is her first dramatic effort. One wouldn’t necessarily think that the bold charisma she brings to her musical performance would translate, but she redirects that energy in a remarkable way. It’s an engaging, powerful performance. Meanwhile, Lisnet captures that hard-to-define Southern “woman of a certain age” perfectly. Call it a hillbilly gentility; she’s sweet as pie and sharp as a tack. It’s a layered performance, a good-natured veneer atop a woman struggling with pain both physical and emotional. And Roeder is mesmerizing, with a nervous energy that is compelling as hell to watch. There’s a nakedness to Roeder’s performance, a not-quite twitchiness, as though there were a gentle but constant electric shock traveling through her skin.

The through thread? Honesty. The relationships and dynamics felt utterly genuine; that feeling of veracity informed every interaction to the better. They shine as individuals, but the extension of that light is exponential when they come together.

Hobbs pulls double duty here, serving as her own scenic designer. The half-renovated kitchen in which the majority of the action takes place is in just the right state of dishabille, with exposed beams and drywall holes giving the set a welcome dimensionality. Lighting designer Scout Hough handles a tough job deftly, giving depth to the primary spaces while essentially creating secondary spaces with light alone. Brittany Staudacher’s costumes evoke a rundown small-town vibe in a manner well-suited to the setting.

“Safety Net” is a trip through the emotional wringer, an unapologetic expression of the pain that surrounds addiction. This is a show that is legitimately heartbreaking, rife with moments of vulnerability and despair and rage. It is an incredibly written, beautifully acted piece of art, one that may well leave you changed after experiencing it - no matter the manner in which that experience is had.

Last modified on Wednesday, 18 March 2020 14:20


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