Keep Tightly Closed in a Cool Dry Place can be approached literally or as a fantasy. In her production notes, Megan Terry highlights the ambiguity surrounding her play. The director should decide, she advises, whether an actual murder has been committed or whether there is merely a desire to commit the crime. Whichever way one approaches the play, its central message deals with imprisonment, alienation, and dependency.
At the outset of the play, all these themes are brilliantly encapsulated by the setting. The jail cell is not only literally a cell but also a metaphor for imprisonment. The three men can be perceived as being imprisoned by their own limitations. Their various attempts to transcend these limitations (by becoming drag queens or film gangsters) lead only to further imprisonment. Terry is urging that people accept their limitations instead of being overwhelmed by them.
The several episodes in the play could be viewed as various stages in Jaspers’s journey toward an acceptance of his limitations, with the “Dearly Beloved” sermon as a culminating point in this development. In this context, all the characters become various aspects of Jaspers, who is the planner: Gregory embodies his sensualist side, while Michaels is that aspect of Jaspers’s personality that needs to be goaded on to do anything. Again, the key word of the sermon is “embrace.” If on the one hand the sermon could be interpreted as Jaspers’s forgiveness of himself for the most heinous crime he could conceive of committing (the murder of his wife), on the other hand it refers to his acceptance of his limitations and the limitations of life. The mechanized aspects of life (symbolized by the scenes in which the men act like a machine) may be alienating, but one may transcend them through human contact and love. The fact that the play begins and ends with the three men holding hands to act like a machine expresses this. It shows their need for interdependency to transcend their limitations.