Nora is an unsentimental 15-year-old lesbian, or so it seems. When reunited with her father after his mysterious decade-long absence, she’s reluctant to show vulnerability.
But eventually she expresses her anger and sadness about how he’s missed so many holidays, her stint in Girls Scouts, father/daughter dances and that he wasn’t there for her when she came out. It’s a memorable, well-acted scene in Pinky Swear Productions’ latest offering Natalie Ann Piegari’s “Safe As Houses.”
The action takes place on Valentine’s Day, 2017. Outside a violent storm is raging. Inside sullen Nora (Annie Ottati) is mainly concerned that texts aren’t going through to her girlfriend. Nora’s mother Isabel (Carolyn Kashner) is oddly calm, folding plaid shirts. Isabel’s husband Henry (Patrick M. Doneghy) is tucked away in another room doing “nerdy” things on his computer. Eventually he emerges to suggest they follow official weather warnings to move to higher ground. Isabel, an oil painter who clearly calls the shots, is unreasonably set against it.
Unexpectedly, a young-looking man, wet and bogged down with shopping bags, lets himself in the house. We will learn that this is Jack (Jonathan Miot), Isabel’s former husband and Nora’s father who has been missing for exactly 10 years. He says he’s carrying the same groceries and flowers that he went out for on that long-ago Valentine’s Day, and has a jug of milk with a 2007 expiration date to back his claim. Mysteriously, he hasn’t aged a day since then and has no memory of the time passed.
Isabel is slow — very slow — in recognizing her former husband who remains physically unchanged. Since his highly publicized disappearance the family has been taunted by cranks so it’s understandable that she’d be wary, but this seems a little strange. In some clichéd exposition, Isabel tells her daughter about meeting Jack in high school while dissecting a frog or something. She’s not sure about the details of that anecdote or a lot of things. Her feelings are revealed with a furrowed brow.
“Safe As Houses” (the title comes from an old English phrase meaning completely safe) is made up of longish, uneven scenes connected by some awkward transitions. The production, directed by Megan Behm, would benefit from a brisker pace. Plodding domestic business like when Isabel slowly places and carefully lights candles (battery operated) at the top of the second act doesn’t help. And intentional or not, the play owes a heavy thematic debt to the classic J.M. Barrie play “Mary Rose.”
There’s a lot left unexplained which is fine. But what’s vexing isn’t that the big questions aren’t answered, it’s that they’re never asked. Why doesn’t Isabel get mad and shout, “Where the [insert expletive] have you REALLY been the last 10 years, Jack?” Why isn’t Jack slightly more freaked out that he’s a modern-day, non-aging Rip Van Winkle?
There are relatable moments too. As Jack, Miot is particularly effective when he learns that his mother has died from cancer in his absence. Also, when he engages in some territorial rage with Henry.
Jessica Cancino’s pleasingly spare set centers on a projection of nonstop, pounding rain seen through a huge paned window. A simple grouping of worn furniture provides the casual atmosphere suited to the artist’s modest but orderly home. Sound designer Kevin Alexander adds appropriately startling claps of thunder.
The drama’s rare flashes of humor are provided almost entirely by Nora whose teenage sarcasm and scathing observations of an insane situation are welcomed. The determinedly out lesbian teen comes across as playwright Piegari’s most authentically written character.