PROVO — With Utah’s abundant art scene, I feel privileged to see things from time to time that are especially relevant to our specific time and place. I recall Sackerson’s A Brief Waltz in a Little Room as one of them recently, which had focus on a gay Mormon man. An Other Theater Company’s newest production, SAFE, a new play by Chelsea Hickman, has certain parallels, though it is as fresh and pertinent as ever. Written and directed by women, the play takes a highly feminist point of view and shines a new light on some of the common issues many in the community face.
SAFE, quite possibly the most personally relatable production I’ve ever seen, centers on freshman roommates Aubrey and Sam who meet while attending their first semester at BYU. Aubrey (played by Maddie Smith) is a wide-eyed Mormon girl and Sam (played by Laura Elise Chapman) is a jaded believer with a darker past and a secret she would rather not be burdened by. The play follows the two girls as they form a close bond and their struggles into the years after graduation. SAFE is comical, touching, and deeply poignant. As a former Mormon myself, the topics and themes in SAFE resonated with me in a profound and meaningful way. Let me be clear, however, this production is in no way anti-Mormon or anti-religion, and in fact, it feels quite the opposite. The play is not specifically directed at those who have left the faith. Current, former, and non-Church-of-Jesus-Christ-of-Latter-Day-Saints members alike will enjoy SAFE and be positively moved by it. SAFE simply addresses issues that people of the faith may struggle with, specifically young people who are attending or who have attended BYU.
SAFE, directed by Liz Whittaker, is one of those shows where every essential element works so well together that it can be hard to focus praise. In this case, skilled writing, directing, acting and design make for an almost flawless production. The story is told non-chronologically and in a compelling way that spans years. The juxtaposition of scenes always made sense to me and kept me interested and alert. Scene breaks flowed nicely and naturally.
The powerful sound design, also by Whittaker, helped with the flow and pacing of the show as well. The production used a playlist where the songs were carefully chosen and accompanied the scenes significantly. The music helped to tell the story and enhance the emotion within it. The set design by Kacey Spadafora and Taylor Jack Nelson was impressive, as always. The upstage wall featured the Wasatch Front mountains with the Y on the side, helping me remember the Provo setting.
Hickman’s script is filled with humorous BYU-centric clichés and jokes that never felt overused or overly exaggerated. The naturalistic and colloquial dialogue flowed naturally and offered the actors plenty to work with. Whenever I am evaluating a new work, it is normal that I look more closely at the script, as it is often a common weak spot among such new works. I was highly impressed that this commonality was not at all the case in this seemingly polished production. There was only one contextual thing that bothered me that I have continued to think about. Early in the script, the girls discuss alcohol and cannabis, substances that are against BYU’s honor code. While I understand and respect this choice in the script, the way this scene was portrayed promoted negative stigma around cannabis that I found outdated and unhealthy.
As Aubrey and Sam, Smith and Chapman were able to use the skilled directing and writing to give the show life. After seeing them in these roles, I can’t imagine better casting. The pair have a powerful chemistry together and develop an adorable relationship and a deep connection that is undeniable. Both actors are comical and skillfully play on the humor in the dialogue and subject matter. Along with being incredibly funny at times, they also display sadness and grief that is truly sobering. Both characters have moments of intense anguish, and the actors portray the trauma, fear, and pain their characters are experiencing powerfully and genuinely, which was affecting. The male characters definitely take a back seat in this play, but the actors Tyler Fox as Jensen and John Valdez as Ethan did a great job at providing honest and authentic portrayals of problematic men, pointing out typical, everyday sexism.
SAFE is undoubtedly a heavy show that deals with many difficult issues surrounding relationships, including depression, guilt, and trauma. Seeing a play with a subject matter so close to home, I felt a visceral reaction at times to what was being presented on stage. Although the production brought up many emotions for me, and sniffling sounds flooded the audience, in many ways this show could be healing and comforting for those that watch it. While I did not engage with many audience members, I felt an unspoken comradery and community with them, and AOTC has developed a special theatre space that feels safe. SAFE is an important story that needs to be told and heard, and one that the theater deserves to sell out every performance.