(Written and directed by Federico Maria Giansanti of FMG, an Italian independent theatrical producer) (2020) (A one-woman performance, filmed play, link below)
At an indeterminate time, in an isolated mountain hospice a young nun (Valeria Wandja) is alone, taking care of two people. The other characters, – a man Paul (“a pure soul” who “takes a bit longer sometimes”) and a bedridden, terminally ill patient, Mrs Parker – are neither seen nor heard. We know them through the nun’s responses to them. The three are the final survivors of a larger community. The nun (“Sister Daisy”, although her name is not heard in the production) calls out to those others who died of an “evil, silent, invidious virus” which is returning her world to a place of “prehistoric desolation“. Communications with the larger world are “shut”. We are privy to her prayers and her spoken thoughts.
Wandja is as alone as Sister Daisy, and her solo performance, in precise, accented English is a tour de force. It lacks nuance perhaps, but Wandja carries the physical burden of the play as Sister Daisy carries the eschatological burden of the three doomed lives, and their souls.
The stage is sparsely lit, barely furnished, the corners and background dark. The black, beige, and red pallet; the wan face of the white head-dressed nun, at times recall a Dutch painting. The freezing exterior is effectively represented by a small flight of steps, and plastic for snow. There is little sound beyond the nun’s voice in prayer and in response to the unheard voices of her charges. There is occasional baroque music, which enhances the slow and mannered mood. Once, bells are heard – are they far down the mountain or outside of the theatre?
Sister Daisy enters the stage carrying the candle of her faith. Between scenes she is spot-lit praying aloud behind a rudimentary red cross. By the end the candles are gone. The food and heating went long before. Sister Daisy relentlessly reassures her charges, “I’ll take care of you“. She cleans, washes, disinfects and cooks what little they have. Her self-abnegation, work and faith are the only bulwark against complete nihilism. She says, “I want to believe everything is going to be fine, even though I know it’s not” and, “It’s going to be alright. We have to have faith.”
Daisy is pious but not a saint. Frustration and bewilderment live side by side with her exhaustion and fear. She answers a question from Mrs Parker with, “for the nine-thousand millionth time…” In the face of a particularly devastating event she swears, screams and shouts an ironic version of “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.”
The flashback scenes to the nun’s unhappy childhood and adolescence would be better excised: they are somewhat predictable and break the mood. Her profound thought (that to live a life of ease, after much suffering, would have been to neglect herself) would be more thought-provoking without the somewhat histrionic setup.
As the nun despairs, her courage and faith remain but she re-considers her purpose. She has done what was asked of her, and has helped others. She questions her motives: “their gratitude fed me“, and “to be honest their deaths have relieved me.” She says that she would “do it all again, but would she be safe?” Of course, we must ask, ‘what is safety?’ We shall all die. Daisy prays: “Stay home. Stay safe. The last words we’ve heard. “Please help me understand these words.”
“Safe” is a fine example of the capacity of theatrical minimalism. As a performance which premiered online at the Great Salt Lake Fringe Festival and won both the “Best of Fringe Festival Award” and the “Audience Choice Award”, it is also an example of how the arts can be kept alive at this time when we are told, “Stay home. Stay safe”. Giansanti and Wandja are both likely to do great things.
A recurrent theme, which resonates with effect in these pestilential times, is that of hope. And, as Emily Dickinson reminds us:
“Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all...”