BWW Review: UNSAFE: What's Your Terror Level?

Unsafe - a psychological thriller

Written and Directed by Jim Dalglish; Producer, Christine Rathbun Ernst; Dramaturg, Tyler Monroe; Lighting Designer, Greg Hamm; Sound Designer/Original Music, Nathan Leigh; Costume Designer, Greta Bieg; Scenic Designer, Tristan DiVincenzo; Furniture Designer, Michael Ernst; Hair & Makeup Designer, TC Crutchfield; Set engineer, Bruce Allen; Stage Manager, Stephanie Hettrick; Associate Director, Ian Morris; Assistant to the Director, Peter Lemire

CAST: Elliot Sicard, Anna Botsford, Michelle Pelletier, H. Kempton Parker, Tony Travostino, Alexandra Tsourides, Natalia Tsourides, Peter G. Lemire, Chris Crider, Ian Morris, Lang Haynes, Nicholas Stewart, Nick Bucchianeri

Performances through April 30 by Boston Public Works at the Plaza Theatre, Boston Center for the Arts, 539 Tremont Street, Boston, MA; Box Office 617-933-8600 or www.bostonpublicworks.org

It has often been a source of public debate when someone decides to produce a film or write a play about an emotionally high-charged, real life event, to try to determine whether or not it is "too soon" to parade the story in front of eyes that may still be wet with tears. I can remember the mixed emotions that greeted Vietnam War-era films, like "Coming Home" and "The Deer Hunter," both of which were released in 1978, about three years after the fall of Saigon. Just this week, the appearance of Mark Wahlberg and a film crew at the finish line of the Boston Marathon raised eyebrows and hackles of many who are protective of the sanctity of the site in the wake of the 2013 bombing. Clearly, there are strong feelings that it is too soon for Hollywood to be co-opting this story for commercial gain.

Local playwright and member of the collaborative Boston Public Works Jim Dalglish has written and directed Unsafe to convey his thoughts and feelings about the impact of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack on the United States. Having been in lower Manhattan at the time, he began to document his experience within days of the event, but it has taken fifteen years for the play to take its present shape and be ready for staging. The world premiere was presented at the Cotuit Center for the Arts March 31 through April 10, before opening for two weeks in the Plaza Theatre at the Boston Center for the Arts.

Unsafe is not the first, nor will it be the last dramatic work to focus on an aspect of the 9-11 story. Dalglish opens his play on the evening of February 5, 2003, the day that Colin Powell testified at the United Nations about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. That time marker is briefly mentioned by the characters, but Unsafe stays far away from the politics of the war on terror, focusing instead on the more personal qualities of terror as internalized by a woman whose husband George was killed in one of the towers that fell. Lisa (Anna Botsford) seeks security by remaining cloistered in her downtown loft with her 7-year old daughter Georgie (Natalia Tsourides at this performance), accepting visitors who are screened by a phone and buzzer system before they can access the elevator.

On this evening celebrating Lisa's 40th birthday, the guest list includes her parents Guy (H. Kempton Parker) and Yvonne (Michelle Pelletier), and Nathaniel (Tony Travostino), a doctor working with Georgie who is afflicted with Williams Syndrome, a rare genetic disorder. There is a level of discord among the partygoers - Yvonne drinks too much and picks at Lisa, Guy discusses a financial deal with Nathaniel that his wife knows nothing about, and the doctor gives Lisa an inappropriate birthday gift. Into the midst of all this comes George's 18-year old prodigal son Will (Elliot Sicard) after a long absence, bringing with him an ominous set of circumstances that will unfold and unravel throughout the play. His is a life filled with danger and he has no illusions that Lisa's cement tower will be a safe haven for him.

As both writer and director, Dalglish painstakingly builds the tension and terror levels. There are half a dozen characters, named only as Wild Boy in the program, who wander around the set prior to the start of the play. They look like feral animals, barely contained by a couple of sections of cyclone fencing plastered with old newspaper pages with photos and lists of missing family members. The Boys return to rearrange the furnishings during scene changes, but they do not speak until a pivotal moment when they represent the dangers of the world breaking through Lisa's barricade. Peter G. Lemire, Chris Crider, Ian Morris, Lang Haynes, Nicholas Stewart, and Nick Bucchianeri as a group are totally in character, and they are a group of characters you would not wish to encounter on the street.

Each of the characters is somehow damaged and it makes the relationships between them more interesting as they try to fit their broken pieces together. Guy is the least developed character, his role being to support his daughter and tolerate his wife, but Parker portrays him with an air of quiet command and long-suffering. Pelletier really sinks her teeth into the flamboyant Yvonne, playing her big and loud at the party, but getting at the hurt and fear she harbors when things take a dramatic turn. Travostino does a good job of showing the doctor's insecurity, not quite knowing his place in the family dynamic. Tsourides, who shares the role of Georgie with her older sister Alexandria, has a natural flair for the stage, realistically portraying the range of emotions of the troubled girl, and never coming across as if she is "acting."

Botsford and Sicard do the very heavy lifting to deliver the weight of the story. His character's arc calls on him to be warm and genuine in his scenes with Georgie, supplicating at times with Lisa, while always showing the physical signs of his drug addiction. Sicard never plays a false note and lets us feel Will's existential angst in every situation. As for Botsford, it is impossible to take your eyes off of her as Lisa struggles to act as if life could ever be normal again. Her long, slow, slide into decompensation is done gradually and masterfully, until she explodes with one of the most raw catharses I have witnessed. Her performance is painful to experience, and entirely authentic.

Unsafe is powerful, relentless, and unsettling. Scenic designer Tristan DiVincenzo's use of grey, concrete walls and floors in Lisa's apartment suggests that she is safely walled off from the outside world, yet they also weigh heavily on our experience of her life. Greg Hamm (lighting designer) and Nathan Leigh (sound designer/original music) add to the claustrophobic atmosphere. Greta Bieg's costumes for Lisa are mostly subdued, while Yvonne's striking red dress (she quips that "it matches today's terror level") conversely adds an ironic splash of color. Together, the design elements encase the characters in their fantasy world, helping them to maintain their distance from the horrors of the past and the uncertainty of the present and future. Dalglish hoped to show how 9-11 changed the way we view the world, and in that he has succeeded. Each person has to decide for themselves whether or not it is too soon.

Photo credit: Jim Dalglish (Anna Botsford, Elliot Sicard)

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From This Author Nancy Grossman

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