Possession takes many forms in Amy Freed’s sometimes clever, sometimes obvious look at the Salem Witch Trials in “Safe in Hell.” After its bow last year at South Coast Rep, the show is receiving a spirited East Coast preem at Yale Rep, helmed by Mark Wing-Davey. Vaudeville, puppetry and grotesque masks all contribute to the dark farce that looks at the consequences of extremism in pursuit of God, Devil or Dad.
But Freed has more on her mind than a Puritan version of “Spamalot.” Problem is, when it comes time to get semi-serious in the second act, the playwright loses her bearings as she tries to make sense of the political, social and psychic dynamics of that time — and of the present.
Like Arthur Miller with “The Crucible,” Freed sees contemporary resonance in her subject matter. For Miller, it was the political witch hunt led by Sen. Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s. For Freed, it’s the current administration’s strategy of using religious principles for political ends. One doesn’t have to squint too hard to see the Bushes in Freed’s Oedipal storyline of the esteemed father and the hopelessly lost son, the latter using a campaign of fear and paranoia to earn his place in the family portrait gallery.
Play centers on the Rev. Increase Mather (Graeme Malcolm), the formidable but God-loving Puritan preacher, and his arrested-development son, Cotton (Erik Lochtefeld). The reverend’s sermons have such titles as “Why God Hates You.”
Increase is summoned to quell the hubbub in Salem, but illness prevents him from traveling, so Cotton seizes the day to show the old man he doesn’t lack the “family gift for the invisible.”
Freed uses contempo speech, some anachronistic touches and lots of broad comedy to make her points — and sometimes just for the hell of it. Often the touches are deft or screwy (“But seriously, folks,” says Increase in the midst of his hellfire-and-brimstone sermon.) Sometimes, however, the gags are simply clunky or strained. (“Let’s not jump the musket, my good woman,” Cotton says to one of the townsfolk. Or: “That’s why he’s called the Almighty. He just might.”)
A great, white-maned Malcolm plays the imposing elder Mather with delicious delight, playfully embracing his Puritan passion. But underneath the silliness, there’s a man who is seriously conversant with God and who understands the need for light in the hard lives of the New World colonizers. (Leiko Fuseya’s dour black set is so grim, it’s funny, with even the textured walls looking painful to live with.)
Also understanding the balance between the farcical and the real is Adam Dannheisser as the Rev. Doakes, the touchy-feely preacher who is the liberal antidote to the party-pooper Puritans and who becomes a victim of Cotton’s crusade.
Perhaps because both Increase and Doakes genuinely connect with God in their own way, they can play the comic so divinely. Less successful is Lochtefeld’s Cotton, who plays the sweaty, smirky, skittish scion with a sense of lost dimness. But the character indeed loses his way and focus in the second act, when he makes a deal with the devil he knows rather than the God he doesn’t.
Others in the cast are wonderfully loopy. Welker White is hysterical in every sense of the word as the tightly wound Puritan wife who just can’t take it anymore in the “dung-hole” of Salem. When her husband tells her times may get more difficult and they might have to live a little poorer, White’s answer, “Not — possible!” — is the comic cry of a woman at wit’s end.
Also solid are Myra Lucretia Taylor as the African slave Tituba, who gives new flavoring and meaning to pea soup, and the other actresses, all of whom take comic possession of their roles.
But for all the comic goings on, it’s unclear what Freed has in mind other than to revel in the tragedy of idiots. Is it to make a morality tale of the battle between the forces of light and darkness, or to say a little more filial self-esteem could have averted a national disgrace?
When the play ends with its light-filled spectacular as Doakes climbs the stairway to Paradise (accompanied by Hawaiian music), Cotton still can’t utter the words “I’m sorry.” In the search of God and/or the father, sometimes it’s easier to settle for the devil in disguise.