By John Thomason
The opening of Palm Beach Dramaworks’ world premiere of Lyle Kessler’s House on Fire could easily have been the grim preamble to a Faulkner story.
Two brothers look down on the apparent corpse of their father, resting motionless on a sofa in his living room. Dale (Taylor Anthony Miller), a meek fantasist who lives with the Old Man—that’s his official name in the script—says he died two days ago.
Dale’s more grounded sibling, Colman (Hamish Allan-Headley), who has just returned home in prodigal fashion after a decade as a vagabond, is rightly dubious. He dares Dale to pinch the Old Man. When Dale complies, his father, like a bear rustled from its hibernation, swiftly attacks, gripping Dale in a chokehold before settling back on the couch and cracking open a PBR.
Putting the dead in deadpan, this is the crackerjack prelude to a demented family reunion. The script and the production both need some refining, but when it’s most in the pocket, House on Fire dances a delicate pas de deux between comedy and tragedy, tension and levity, verisimilitude and whimsy. It operates in its own subgenre of magic realism that I’ll call screwball existentialism.
Kessler’s latest work is something of a companion piece to his most famous play, 1983’s Orphans: Both are set in creaky Philadelphia residences and feature two grown brothers who are haunted, in their disparate ways of processing grief, by the early death of their mother—which is credited, in both dramas, to their old man.
This play’s Old Man, an irascible bloviator played with tattered charisma by Rob Donohoe, is described charitably by Dale as a “a man of strong convictions.” Colman corrects him: He’s a man of “strong prejudices.” More bluntly, Colman adds, “he’s a rotten motherfucking bastard” whose demise, when it really arrives, should be celebrated, not mourned.
The extent of the Old Man’s paternal crimes and spousal abnegations are suggested more than spelled out, but he is presented by Colman as less of a person than a spreading fungus that follows his offspring everywhere. He’s the reason Colman ran away 10 years ago for a life of wandering penury, and may be the reason Dale has developed crippling insecurities, spending most waking hours penning fairy tales that he then locks away in a safe. They are the nomad and the recluse, each an equal and opposite reaction to their father’s alienating actions.
Just as soon as Colman agrees to stay awhile, their house is invaded by a pair of eccentric burglars: Noah (Christopher Kelly), a one-armed menace, and his woo-woo sister Lane (Georgia Warner), who can apparently hear the faint susurrus of spirits and says that she prefers “flights of fancy” to reality, a turn of phrase that sounds too arch even for a magic realist play. We learn that Noah and Lane not only sheltered Colman during one of the low points in his wanderings but that his relationship to Lane may be closer than he’d anticipated.
Kessler’s script is rich with intertextual reference points, from fables and nursery rhymes to gothic fiction and baseball arcana. The Old Man happens to be obsessed with the great American pastime, a theme that Dramaworks’ design team embraced with gusto. David Thomas’ sound design bookends scenes with cheerful, kitschy baseball anthems from the pre-rock ‘n’ roll era, while Bill Clarke’s scenic design is a towering two-story triumph of shabby baseball detritus. Philadelphia Phillies paraphernalia covers most surface space in the Old Man cave, and hoarder-esque newspaper piles line the living room’s parameter; upstairs, abandoned baseball equipment gathers mothballs in storage lockers. So accurately messy is the set that when the room is trashed, at the beginning of a crescendo of destruction in Act Two, the difference is negligible. (The set also integrates a marvelous use of a trapdoor whose details I won’t spoil.)
For all its depth and compassion, Kessler’s script falters is in its metaphor overkill. House on Fire is writerly to a fault, with characters continuing each other’s analogies in a manner that sounds poetic on the page but unconvincing during the fraying bluster of confrontation.
The production, too, struggles from dramaturgical inconsistencies. A TV with antennae still works in the Internet age? Maybe, but more glaringly: With the play having established the wafer-thin sound barrier between upstairs and downstairs, it makes no sense that Lane, who had spent an inordinate amount of time trying to crack Dale’s second-floor safe, would not hear Colman’s anguished breakdown in the living room, which involves tearing apart furniture and screaming into a void.
Still, much credit goes to director Bill Hayes for managing the play’s wild mood swings—often shifting, pendulum-like, from one line to the next—and for choreographing the domestic cataclysm that comprises the lengthy final scene, with its fisticuffs, its drawn firearms, its emotional catharses. Hayes draws sensitive and vulnerable performances from his ensemble, most notably the exceptional Donohoe, whose spitfire obstinacy in Act One is removed like a security blanket toward the end, as he slumps onto the floor, awash in regret, earning our pity and redemption.
Kelly expertly oscillates between the short-fused Noah’s love for his sister and his contempt for the rest of the world, adding touching bathos to the handful of sob stories he spins about his lost arm, to the point where all of them, and none of them, ring true. Warner, likewise, deftly manifests Lane’s complexities; we initially view her as a delusional naïf, yet she becomes the linchpin for Kessler’s unlikely, miraculous optimism.
For reasons I can’t quite fathom, House on Fire never scales the harrowing heights of Dramaworks’ finest dysfunctional-family dramas, like Buried Child and Long Day’s Journey Into Night. You could argue that it’s apples and oranges, perhaps. But despite its absurdist humor, Kessler’s play is full of broken people armed with metaphorical matches. I expected a more blazing fire; the considerable heat will have to do.
House on Fire runs through Dec. 30 at Palm Beach Dramaworks, 201 Clematis St., West Palm Beach. Show times are 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday and some Sundays; 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m. Wednesday, Saturday, Sunday. Running time approximately 2 hours plus a 15-minute intermission. Individual tickets are $75. Student tickets are available for $15, and Pay Your Age tickets are available for those 18-40. Tickets for educators are half price with proper ID (other restrictions apply). Call (561) 514-4042, or visit palmbeachdramaworks.org.