Home Fires Burning

Family dramas are one of the most tried-and-true storytelling genres. Perhaps that is why Chris Henry’s production of Sean Cullen’s Safe Home adds in a few extra elements – audio-visual effects, a non-linear storytelling approach. But all the tricks in the world cannot disguise the fact that this play still needs a lot of work. It’s not clear exactly why – Home has already endured development readings at Lincoln Center Theater, Primary Stages, and Stanford University (by the American Conservatory Theatre and a workshop production with New York's CAP 21 in 2008). With this much of an investment of both time and effort, one would think the central Hollytree family in the show would be far easier to relate to than this fractured tale allows.

Cullen sets Home in the early 1950s, during the Korean War. Eldest Hollytree son Jimmy (Eric Miller), aka “Lucky” has chosen to serve overseas. Not to spoil anything, since it is revealed during the play’s first scene, but Lucky is less than his name implies – he doesn’t make it back alive. Cullen’s subsequent seven scenes hurtle back and forth between 1951 and 1953 to show some of the fallout of Lucky’s death and some of the events that led him to make his fateful decision.

Except that in the aggregate, many of these scenes feel either incomplete or inconsequential. Lucky is unemployed and lost – his home life does nothing to help him feel grounded. His mother, Ada (Cynthia Mace, a reservoir of anguish), is a negative Nelly prone to antagonizing her family, though it is unclear why. Is she chronically depressed? Disappointed by life? Or was there an earlier specific incident that led her here?

Similarly, patriarch Jim (Michael Cullen)’s hands are always bandaged due to ambiguous work with radiators that perpetually causes them to bleed. He can be as volatile as his wife when angry, but gets provoked by the oddest of occasions, for instance, at the arrival of Claire Baggot (Katy Wright Mead), the girl Lucky left behind. Even if their motivations are questionable, Cullen and Mace are terrific at displaying regret and disappointment

Henry has difficulty finding the human elements beneath Cullen’s out-of-order storytelling structure. The audience never gets a chance to feel either conflict or chemistry in the flashback portrayals of Lucky’s attraction to Claire; the scenes play mostly as filler, with the momentum drained out of them.

Other scenes fail to register appropriately as well. Home misuses Hollytree brother Pat (an excellent Eric Saxvik) in his several scenes. One scene in which Pat tries to open Lucky’s coffin to see if his body is actually inside seems too dragged out. One wishes that Cullen would make good on this character’s potential. Is he doomed to follow Lucky’s path, or does he have more choices than his older brother? Another flashback scene, in which Jim feels threatened by Lucky, seems to short, as if Cullen the playwright needs to provide more background to warrant such paranoia. (Ian Hyland is impressive as John, the youngest Hollytree brother).

Perhaps part of the problem with this production of Home is a case of myopia. Is the playwright too close to his subject? In the program, he explains that Home emerged over a sixteen-year process inspired by his own family. His grandparents, Ada and Jim, lived and raised three sons in Buffalo, and one of his uncles was indeed killed in the Korean War. Before his death, he sent home a lengthy letter “from a cold and lonely outpost in Korea.”

It is likely that Cullen, the playwright, could not separate his family adequately from the work. He introduces issues but doesn’t explore any of them fully. Henry also makes no effort to further elucidate Cullen’s narrative choices, and then makes an additional poor choice: at one point in the show, a character with a cigarette in hand opens up a window onstage and leaves it open for the duration of the show. The freezing cold outside temperature then permeates the theater for the rest of the performance, making it difficult to attend to the play.

All of these factors make Home feel half-baked. There is a potentially moving, relevant story here, but it has yet to be unearthed.

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