Everyday in her small Alabama town, Fire Chief Chris Dove saves a life. Except for when she doesn’t.
The opioid epidemic is roiling through her community, and she takes every death personally — in part because her younger brother died of a drug overdose.
Her mother, Xenia, has chronic back pain but refuses to take anything stronger than an over-the-counter painkiller that doesn’t help enough.
Into their lives strolls Val Croley, a former classmate of Chris’ whom the fire chief successfully revived with Narcan, who is struggling to stay sober.
Through these three women, Penobscot Theatre Company’s production of “Safety Net” shows how devastating the opioid crisis has been on small communities and the people who live in them. Playwright Daryl Lisa Fazio tells the intertwining stories of these three women with honesty and respect for each one of her characters.
This is an eye-opening and emotional show for anyone who is not on the front lines of this epidemic. It is one of the most important shows PTC has done under Producing Artistic Director Bari Newport’s direction. In its own way, “Safety Net” is as fine a production as last year’s musical “Fun Home” that soared with perfection.
“Safety Net” premiered last fall at the Theatrical Outfit in Atlanta with Fazio playing Chris. Newport felt the show would resonate in Maine, where 277 people died of drug overdoses in the first nine months of 2019. Thirty-four of those deaths were in Penobscot County, according to statistics gathered by the Maine Attorney General’s office.
Newport and Production Manager Tricia A. Hobbs, who directed “Safety Net,” had given 20 tickets for each show to first responders and local members of the recovery community. They had lined up experts and officials on the front lines of the crisis in Greater Bangor to talk before each performance.
Then, the coronavirus hit the U.S. Last week, Newport announced the company would cancel the three-week run of the production after just two performances with audiences at the Bangor Opera House. Theater companies around the country and in Maine were doing the same thing.
Newport changed her mind Friday, the day before opening night, and decided the theater would try something it had never done before — livestream performances over the internet in a shortened run. PTC most likely is the first theater company in Maine to try livestreaming, although the Metropolitan Opera in New York City and the National Theatre in London do it regularly.
About a dozen people, including PTC employees, the families and close friends of the cast and crew and local reviewers were invited to attend the Friday and Saturday performances while Newport and her staff figured out how to make livestream work.
Hobbs is a master at creating intimate ensembles, and she does it expertly in “Safety Net.” Watching the show, even with a very small audience, was like peering through Chris’ kitchen window. It was evident that Hobbs fell in love with all three of Fazio’s characters and was determined to let these actresses go with their guts.
Heather Astbury-Libby is surprising and amazing as Chris, the town’s first female fire chief. The actress has appeared in dozens of musicals and musical revues because of her strong singing voice. But no one who’s seen those shows has seen her like this.
She is a raw nerve onstage and gives a gut-wrenching performance as a woman who can’t stop caring about her community or the men — and they are all men — she must lead. Astbury-Libby vividly shows how every death is like a body blow to the character as she struggles to find balance so she can keep getting up and going to work everyday.
Julie Arnold Lisnet is wonderful as the loving mother who doesn’t understand what made her son turn to drugs or why her daughter feels so responsible for everyone. The actress also expertly portrays Xenia’s struggle to manage her pain without narcotics.
As Val, Amy Roeder gives a layered and nuanced performance. As written, the part portrays the character as a pretty typical user, but Roeder makes Val an individual with a unique story. Her scenes with Astbury-Libby crackle with energy.
PTC’s technical crew did a masterful job in creating an intimate performance space. Set designer Hobbs, lighting designer Scout Hough, costume designer Sean McGinley, costume designer Brittany Staudacher, properties designer Meredith Perry and the cast deserve a standing ovation from a live audience that, unfortunately, they will never see.
By focusing on three characters, “Safety Net” sheds light on how hundreds of thousands of Americans have been affected and will continue to be touched by the opioid epidemic. Perhaps, PTC or another Maine theater company will find room for it in an upcoming season, when it can be performed before a live audience.
Its message is that important.
Penobscot Theatre Company’s production of “Safety Net” will be livestreamed from the Bangor Opera House through Sunday. Tickets holders will be sent a password and instructions on how to view the show.