"Safe House" at the Aurora Theatre in Berkeley has the makings of an Old Testament fable: Two brothers at odds, one a man of ambition and the other a free spirit, with the wrath of a hostile society about to fall on both of them.
But this play is set in 19th century rural Kentucky rather than an ancient Holy land, and playwright Keith Josef Adkins based it on the story of his own ancestors, free-born blacks, living side by side with slave owners but as second-class citizens.
Older brother Addison (David Everett Moore, who was Polixenes in SF Shakespeare's "The Winter's Tale" over the summer) works himself to the bone as a cobbler, successful but annoyingly proud of his freeborn status and aplomb as a businessman catering to white neighbors.
Younger brother Frank (Lance Gardner, who appeared in every single play in Cal Shakes' season earlier this year) is a restless wanderer who chafes at the rules restricting his family's freedom and resents the life Addison plans for them as agents of the status quo.
The family operates under a sort of extended probation after Frank and their upstanding Aunt Dorcas (Dawn L Troupe) were previously caught helping runaway slaves. One more slip and the oft-referenced, but always invisible county sheriff has seemingly limitless power to punish them however he likes.
Addison's desire to be a man of status and his tacit endorsement of slavery seem cowardly. But his ambitions are provocative in their own way too: He wants to open a storefront and "make white people come to him" instead of selling door to door, which, in the charged atmosphere of the play, is an incredibly bold move.
Frank is less defined. His fidgety belligerence and muted resentment lack direction, generally just poking out this way and that. He openly defies his brother only sometimes, but rebels against him in indirect ways, including carrying on a secret affair with the woman whom Addision has his eye on
(That's Dezi Soley, in a part that, disappointingly, never really stands on its own as anything but a bone of contention between the men.)
But the play rarely gives us the confrontation between the two that we crave. And their final reckoning, powerful though it is, comes only after a truly shocking betrayal completely upends their previous dynamic.
This means that much of "Safe House" is spent quietly waiting for something that doesn't quite ever come. Gardner's usual rambunctious spirit appears an ill fit for this constrained part, and Frank is left twisting in the wind.
So instead of the brothers at odds dynamic, most of what gives "Safe House" its heft is, first of all, Moore, whose blustery, highly sensitive performance turns Addison from a mere prig into a deeply tragic figure.
And the second thing is the profound atmosphere of tension and unease that permeates every other scene.
While we dare not reveal much in the way of spoilers, you can probably guess that the family doesn't go on ignoring the plight of neighboring slaves forever. The compulsive fear generated by those kinds of risks can be positively electric in the hands of director L Peter Callender.
That's where Troupe, as resilient but world-weary Aunt Dorcas, really shines. In most scenes, she looks like a portrait painted by a great master, her face and small gestures textured with anxiety, regret, and the hard-nosed desire to break free of the small life into which they've all been forced.
It's good drama, although it's still admittedly odd that what should be its central pillar never really gets upright.