As Mag Singer, the heroine of “Safe Passage,” tells it, one minute she was hot for her husband, Patrick, and the next they had seven sons. After 25 years of car pools and discipline and Little League and refereeing and cooking and playing Mussorgsky at deafening decibel levels, the boys are grown and now it is Mag’s time. To this end, she’s thrown Patrick out of their rambling house and doesn’t have the time to explain why. Don’t crowd her, boys.
That’s because the purposeful Mag is on her way to take the civil service exam. But first comes the bulletin of an explosion at a Marine barracks in the Middle East where one of her sons, Percival, is billeted. One by one, each of Mag’s men returns home to sit vigil as the family waits for news of his fate.
And as Mag relives every painful memory of her life with her most troubled son, it dawns on the irascible, irrepressible, irreverent woman, this mother of all mothers, that being mom is not just a job, but an adventure.
In a cantankerous, reckless performance that’s 180 degrees opposite from her turn as the idealized mom in “Little Women,” Susan Sarandon puts the motherhood pieties out to pasture. Her Mag is impatient and impertinent, the anti-authoritarian as drill sergeant, rebelling against her maternal role while barking orders to her little men. As her character’s mood swings between Medea and the Madonna, Sarandon mesmerizes.
This is not a performance, it is a force of nature, the kind of cyclonic, nail-down-the-furniture pressure system that Bette Davis (whom the pop-eyed Sarandon is increasingly coming to resemble) used to periodically summon. What is the source of this energy? It comes from whatever organ fuels a 90-pound mom to lift a two-ton truck off her tot’s toe. Something superhuman about Sarandon’s performance supercharges the atmosphere of this frequently comic family melodrama co-starring Sam Shepard as Mag’s estranged husband, Patrick, and Robert Sean Leonard as their eldest son, Alfred.
As she prepared for a new life as a working woman, Mag believed she could pack up the past, put it in boxes and store it away. But like the cartons stacked in her hallways, her family’s past spills into the present. She can no more escape this than avoid the fact that she has these sons, all of whom have inherited her don’t-stand-in-my-way determination.
In this crowded, enormously entertaining production, the filmmaking debut of stage director Robert Allan Ackerman, all the performances apart from Sarandon’s are uniformly good. And though Sarandon threatens to eclipse some of her co-stars, Shepard is droll as her husband who suffers inexplicable blind spells and Marcia Gay Harden superb as Alfred’s live-in lover.
As adapted from Ellyn Bache’s novel, “Safe Passage” is compassionate toward every Singer family member.
Instead of making Mag and her men out to be aggressive or recessive or overwhelming or crazy, each is seen as a gifted eccentric, having grown into his peculiarities in order to complement the family member nearest to him.
Because of all involved, “Safe Passage” does a masterful job of showing the inimitable way a family can alternatingly suffocate you and supply you the freshest of air.
MEMO: This sidebar ran with story: “Safe Passage” is playing at North Division cinemas. Directed by Robert Allan Ackerman and starring Susan Sarandon, Sam Shepard, Marcia Gay Harden and Robert Sean Leonard. Rated PG-13