As is their custom, Road Less Traveled Productions has assembled a pamphlet loaded with facts about the themes surrounding a work on its stage, in this case, “Safe,” the latest play by the company’s unofficial playwright-in-residence, Donna Hoke.
RLTP dramaturge Katie Mallinson puts together facts and figures, theories and commentary about a play’s theme. The information makes interesting reading; the pages are worth keeping.
This time around, the notes are chock-full of data about bullying, a not-so-new societal problem. Elston cites a 17th century definition: “a person who uses strength or influence to harm or intimidate those who are weaker.” Insidious then, insidious now.
“Safe,” directed by Kyle LoConti, has just opened at RLTP’s beautifully remodeled, 100-seat space, the former Forbes Theater. These first real performances were preceded by some workshop dates in Michigan. But, technically, “Safe” is another in a long line of RLTP “world premieres.”
Playwright Hoke – also a dramaturge, blogger, magazine columnist, writer of children’s literature, crossword puzzle constructor for national dailies – became interested in the culture of bullying after hearing a radio report about a criminal case in Long Island, the horror of schoolyard violence and hate, the parental shock, the lifelong ramifications among all involved. Hoke wanted to write about the incident. Ideas came and went.
When Jamey Rodemeyer, a Williamsville North freshman, a gay activist against homophobia, was found dead by hanging in 2011, an anonymous Internet posting sent to Jamey read: “I wouldn’t care if you died, No one would. So, just do it.”
Hoke knew the time had come to get bullying to the stage, act out the signs, give silent victims a voice.
After four years, “Safe” has arrived. Michele Benzin, Matthew Gilbert, Christopher Evans, Jesse Tiebor and Lisa Ludwig are featured in 12 scenes, vacillating between 1986 and 2011, family histories and behaviors explored and evolved, peeks into a day in the high school life of bullies, the bullied and those who don’t taunt or threaten but know of someone who is a victim – and say nothing. “Safe” is a scary story.
As “Safe” unfolds, in “The Safest Town in America,” Elston’s gathered stats hit home: 22 percent of students reported being bullied during the school year; 64 percent of students bullied do not report it; cyberbullying is rampant. Reasons for bullying? Looks, 55 percent; body shape, 37 percent; race, 16 percent; LGBT, 81.9 percent; high school on-line bullying, 14.8 percent.
Donna Hoke writes dialogue brilliantly, a natural flow, pauses, spurts, silent moments speaking volumes, rarely a false note – and LoConti’s cast is very adept, particularly the remarkable Evans and the thoughtful, connect-the-dots Benzin. Actors Gilbert and Tiebor impress. Most play multiple roles effectively.
“Safe” has its flaws. Some scenes add little to the story. And a closing candlelight vigil is vaguely presented and nearly inaudible. In the big picture, minor faults.
If you seek bullying quotes online, you’ll find hundreds, comments ranging from Benjamin Disraeli to Ellen Degeneres to Lady Gaga – Jamey Rodemeyer’s favorite. But, equally powerful are little packs of “bully board” posted notes on each RLTP foyer table. Students in Michigan were asked to write their experiences with bullies – as participants, victims or someone who knew but deferred. Heart-wrenching, many of the remembrances, most of them underscoring the many lessons “Safe” leaves audiences.
Likewise, the closing lines of an online poem, written by a bullying victim:
No one’s there to save you.
You don’t know what it’s like.
Welcome to my life.
“Safe” inspires. Once again, Donna Hoke has written something very important.
3 stars (out of four)
Where: Road Less Traveled Theater, 500 Pearl St.
When: Through April 3
Tickets: $35 general, $20 students, $5 Thursday for students.