According to the scoreboard, it’s the bottom of the ninth inning, with Game 7 of the World Series hanging in the balance. But at St. Paul’s CHS Field on an early March evening, the wind is howling and the thermometer is just barely north of freezing.
What in the world is going on here?
This is “Safe at Home,” a drama about baseball, race and immigration. Mixed Blood Theatre decided to stage its world premiere in an actual baseball stadium.
The show, running at the home of the St. Paul Saints through Sunday, has nine scenes, scattered throughout the stadium in places such as the press box, a luxury suite and an elevator lobby, where the San Diego Padres’ mascot, the Swinging Friar, does comic battle with the rival San Diego Chicken.
“It’s daring and fun,” said educator Megan Lagas as the wind hit her face while she skedaddled down some stairs. “The crazy weather adds to that sense of excitement.”
The audience, broken up into groups of 25, moves from scene to scene, following the action as Padres ace pitcher Victor Castillo (played by the fierce Christopher Rivas), a native of the Dominican Republic, seeks both to win a championship and to take a political stand on immigration, legal or otherwise.
The drama is intimate and intense.
“I love that it peels back the layers of issues around things that we like to think of as simple,” said Melanie Kelly, a baseball fan who came out for Tuesday night’s preview performance. “And I love that it’s all so close, so we’re having this powerful experience.”
“Safe at Home” is doing what many theaters are trying to do these days. It takes the show outside its usual environment in hopes of reaching a different audience, and making its subject matter feel fresh and relevant.
“Baseball, race, immigration. What’s more American than that?” said Mixed Blood founder Jack Reuler, who directed the show.
A baseball fan who’s directed more than a dozen sports-themed plays, Reuler heard about the work while visiting the La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego. Its literary manager, Gabriel Greene, co-authored the drama with a longtime friend, Alex Levy.
“It’s right in our wheelhouse,” Reuler said. “You pick up the newspaper or read an article online, and it’s all about immigration, it’s about race. We’re not prophetic. But we’re right on the pulse of the nation at the moment. And, sadly, these issues are not going away anytime soon.”
He brought the idea to the Saints, who, he said, have lived up to their names. “They’ve been amazing collaborators.”
Staging it cost $120,000, twice the cost of a usual Mixed Blood show. That money helps pay for a top-notch cast of 18 that includes former WCCO anchor Don Shelby, who plays a team owner; Lester Purry, a Guthrie and Penumbra veteran, and Harry Waters, a Macalester professor who was part of the original cast of “Angels in America.”
The play moves like clockwork. The actors are divided up into nine scenes, which they repeat at 10-minute intervals as the audience cycles through. Each scene lasts about 7 minutes, leaving 3 minutes for the audience to move to the next station.
Crew members in headsets coordinate the action around the stadium.
In the batting cage, a black umpire (Warren C. Bowles) argues with a white league official (Mark Sieve) about how to respond if the pitcher goes through with his protest.
In the plush clubhouse, the Padres general manager (Purry) confronts his pitching coach (Pedro Bayon) about reining in the ace.
“It’s gripping and terrific,” said Mason Fong, a onetime baseball coach. “I like the diversity of the cast — you have racial and ethnic diversity. You have a woman in a wheelchair. I just wish they had some women of color.”
The show also amounts to an amazing tour of the innards of a stadium. One scene takes place in a big men’s bathroom, where two fans (played by Ansa Akyea and Michael Lee) argue over loyalties. A couple of young women in the audience were clearly skittish as they stood next to some (very clean) urinals.