Encore Michigan

Lansing’s favorite daughter opens hometown play at Williamston

Review October 13, 2019 Bridgette Redman

WILLIAMSTON, Mich.–There is a long tradition of playwrights creating works that pay tribute to important people in their lives–the people who have molded them, inspired them and whose stories resonate throughout their lives.

Williamston Theater is opening one such autobiographical play to start its 14th season. The play, Safe House, features Kristine Thatcher’s grandmother and tells stories that have been passed down in her family. It’s a play set in Lansing and features such Lansing landmarks as Stober’s Bar, which used to be the Rustic Village and owned by Thatcher’s grandparents.

Thatcher grew up in Lansing, where she began an acting career at age 16 at BoarsHead. She went on to perform in Chicago as an actress and playwright before returning to Lansing as BoarsHead’s artistic director and then the founder of Stormfield Theater, which closed when she became ill with ovarian cancer in 2012 which she is still fighting.

Casaundra Freeman directs the three-person show, which takes place in July 1982. Her direction gives the show the tinge of a memory play, though the narrator is the playwright rather than a character. She lets the play roll out slowly, allowing each character to indulge in their “remember whens” and to establish the closeness of a loving family that appears to have worked through all its past dysfunction and come out on the other side.

The conflict is a familiar one to many families. The grandmother, Hannah, played beautifully by Karen Sheridan, is starting to forget things, important things, things that make it dangerous for her to live alone. Her two sons want her to move to a retirement home, one that specializes in caring for people with memory loss.

Her granddaughter, Bridget, clearly based on Thatcher and played by Dani Cochrane, is paying a visit from New York City, where her second marriage and career have taken a downturn. She immediately takes her grandmother’s side, arguing with her uncle Mathius that removing her from the home she built with her husband would speed the downslide and memory loss.

It’s not a show with many surprises. The story is a familiar one and there are only a few possible outcomes and The Safe House takes the route the audience expects after the first few scenes. But The Safe House isn’t about the resolution of a conflict. It’s a tribute to an amazing woman and the way she inspired the generations that came after her. It’s the story of a German immigrant who fought hard to make a life in America in the 30s and 40s. It’s a show about family and how they take care of each other.

Sheridan seems to take on a different accent every time she steps on the Williamston stage and this time she fully masters the German accent. Her Hannah is delightful, full of energy, vigor and good humor. She has an indomitable spirit and it is clear why her family loves her so much.

Cochrane’s Bridget has a world-weariness about her, she has her grandmother’s fire, but much of it has been quenched by the circumstances of her life. She’s returned home to the place reflected in the play’s title to try to find herself again.

Tobin HIssong is Mathius, the son who has been trying to take care of his mother and who is worried about what will happen to her if she continues to live alone. He too has some of the family fire in him and Hissong is delightful when he tells terrible jokes and fills the home with laughter.

Together, the three are able to capture the passion and love that exists in a family and the real struggles that they undergo when they try to take care of each other in difficult circumstances. They have the feel of a family that has a rich history together that they cherish.

Much of the play’s actions and the most difficult conflicts take place off stage. It is up to the characters to tell us about the darker sides of their history and to relate to each other the struggles the grandmother has had. We see only a few incidents take place on stage, though it is enough to drive home the urgency of the decisions the family must make.

Gabriella Csapo designed the first set in Williamston’s renovated space and she created an evocative backdrop that outlined the house, leaving Michelle Raymond to fill it with the props that turn a house into a home. The clean white outlines lend a lightness and a history to the atmosphere and allow the audience to fill in the walls with their own memories of previous generations.

Shannon Schweitzer’s light design helped provide the punctuation to Freeman’s stage pictures, with lingering lights at the end of a scene stretching out the heartbeat of a moment. He also cast the shadows of picture windows upon the stage, evoking the orderliness of a well-loved home.

For those familiar with the industrial side of Lansing, Sonja Marquis’ scene opening sound designs helped set the scene with the passing of trains and their distant horns.

The Safe House pays tribute to family ties, to loved ones long gone and to the difficult decisions families who care about each other must make. It is a gentle, loving play that has all the warmth of a cup of hot chocolate on a cold October evening. For someone looking for an evening of hope, comfort and smiles, Williamston’s The Safe House will fill the bill.