The Kentucky of “Safe House” — onstage at Aurora Theatre Co. in a West Coast premiere — is a dangerous place.
It’s 1843 in Keith Josef Adkins’ drama of race, family ties and dreams deferred, and the Pedigrews are about to find out just how perilously their lives hang in the balance two decades before the Emancipation Proclamation.
Each member of the family — Addison, his brother Frank, and their aunt Dorcas — is a freeborn person of color. It doesn’t make them free.
Since trying to help an escaped slave two years earlier, they’ve been living in what amounts to house arrest, unable to swim in a nearby creek or even close their front door.
Now the sheriff’s edict has run its course, they’ve stayed clear of the law, and older brother Addison has big plans. A cobbler by trade, he’s decided to turn their house into a boot and shoe store. He’s a fine craftsman, and his target customers are Kentucky aristocracy — the sheriff and, as the play begins, the state’s visiting governor.
As much as Addison hungers for success, Frank wants nothing to do with the business; he’s a dreamer, and his immediate goal is to convince Clarissa, the daughter of a neighboring family, to marry him.
Dorcas, meanwhile, looks to Liberia for a sense of hope; her only satisfaction is helping others make their way to the African republic.
The outcome almost seems a foregone conclusion, but Adkins gives the play several surprising turns.
The long-simmering rivalry between Addison and Frank — complicated by the fact that they both love Clarissa — intensifies. The arrival of another runaway slave brings a shocking act of betrayal.
Adkins’ script occasionally stalls, but as directed by L. Peter Callender on Kate Boyd’s set of weathered wood and homely furnishings (enhanced by Jon Tracy’s lighting, Callie Floor’s costumes and Chris Houston’s excellent sound design and original music), the actors inhabit their roles with urgency.
David Everett Moore makes Addison’s ambition both sympathetic and a blindingly tragic flaw. Lance Gardner is riveting as the defiant, uncompromising Frank.
Cassidy Brown exudes pathos as the worn-down sheriff’s deputy, Bracken. Dezi Soley is a bright Clarissa, and Jamella Cross lends the production an electric jolt as the fugitive slave, Roxie.
Still, as the Pedigrews’ story comes to an end, it’s Dawn L. Troupe’s wary, sorrowful performance as Dorcas that lingers in the memory. Dorcas may be a free woman, but her vision of a free life remains on a continent half a world away.
Presented by Aurora Theatre Co.
Where: 2081 Addison St., Berkeley
When: 7 p.m. Tuesdays, 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays; closes Dec. 4
Contact: (510) 843-4822, www.auroratheatre.org