What “Safe in Hell” boils down to is something deeper than an exploration into the history of Salem. Instead, the audience witnesses a compelling drama of a son searching to prove himself.
The drama of the Salem witch trials has proven a rich source for dramas — Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible,” among others. Amy Freed follows in these footsteps by using Salem, Mass., as the setting for “Safe in Hell.” Freed follows the practice of Miller and others in making many of the characters of Salem composites of people involved in the actual trials. However, in this play the characters of Salem provide more of a backdrop to another story, that of two Puritan leaders, Increase Mather and his son, Cotton.
In his portrayal of Cotton Mather, Erik Lochtefeld captures his character’s desire to prove himself as successor to a great line of Puritan leaders. From above the audience, portraits of Mather’s ancestors hang over the stage looking down on him. With this omnipresent background serving as reminder of Cotton’s lofty legacy, Lochtefeld creates a character that comes across as earnest and hungry to reach his place in the world, yet who critically misunderstands what he needs to do to achieve that.
Particularly striking in the play is the nuanced portrayal of the Puritans, who often in the American popular conception are thought of as harsh, condemning people fixated on their religiosity. While this component is illustrated, what is striking is the contrast painted between Increase Mather and his son, Cotton, as Increase shows a more devout but also kinder view of the world in contrast to his son, who fits the harsh Puritan conception.
But while the basic drama of Cotton’s struggle proves interesting, where the play falters is in its farce. Making the ridiculousness of these characters’ words and deeds come across without seeming contrived is a rather difficult task, both for the playwright and the actors. Some characters succeed more than others: Increase Mather, for example, is able to exercise supernatural powers and speak with God while projecting the image that he is still a realistic individual.
Another wonderful example of this is the character of the slave, Tituba (Myra Lucretia Taylor). In her performance, Taylor is able to create a character who is utterly convincing in her cynical and magical rants. These digressions provide both social criticism and comedy.
In contrast to the realistic ridiculousness of these characters, at many times Cotton’s words come across as too much of an effort to convince the audience that he is a funny character.
The two strands of the play, a son’s relationship to his father and to the world and the ordeal of the Salem witch trials, at times seem incongruous. Some elements to the Salem witch trial, such as the character Indian Roger, seem thrown into the story either to add a sense of false historical detail or to provide some comic relief rather than actually contributing to the drama.
Throughout the show, David Burgies’ sound design integrates seamlessly with the setting. Background noises and music appear with such subtlety that they sound like organic parts of the scene. As Cotton Mather prepares to enter Salem, for instance, strings slowly enter the acoustic background, filled with dissonances suggesting the conflict going on, all the while accompanied by crickets chirping.
One component of the scenic design particularly well done is a moveable black wall that serves multiple functions as a set-piece. At one point in the piece, the wall is slowly shifted in the background as a demon is invoked. The subtlety with which this is handled creates a sense of the supernatural on the stage, making one feel as though a demon is lurking nearby.