An emotional train wreck is at the heart of Lyle Kessler’s comic drama, House on Fire, now receiving its world premiere at Palm Beach Dramaworks, and running through December 30.
PBD Producing Artistic Director William Hayes superbly directs the play, which was submitted to the Dramaworkshop for consideration two years ago. “I was the last person to read it and it quickly merged to the top,” said Hayes. “It was something I actively pursued to produce almost immediately.”
Scenic design is by Bill Clarke, costume design is by Brian O’Keefe, lighting design is by Donald Edmund Thomas, and sound design is by David Thomas. Esther Flaster is the associate director and Lee Soroko is the fight director.
Like many of his plays, including his internationally renowned play Orphans, which recently received two nominations for the Broadway revival starring Alec Baldwin and Ben Foster, Kessler uses very quirky characters who are on the edge of society. These damaged individuals typically have a series of misfortunes or are making the wrong choices in life. But the beauty of his characters in all his plays is that they all have vulnerabilities—soft spots that you learn overtime what made them this way.
House on Fire takes place in Fishtown, a very isolated area in the northern part of Philadelphia. The town is filled with uneducated people who don’t like to leave their little bubble, and even those from Philadelphia see it as a foreign place. In a funny scene, Noah [Christopher Kelly] presents the first conundrum, exclaiming: “What kind of town is this called Fishtown? There are no fish!”
Like most of Kessler’s plays, House on Fire is a home without a mother. She has passed away so this is a very male dominated house, with lots of resentment, stony dispositions and little love.
The story begins when Colman [Hamish Allan-Headley] returns home after a self-imposed, decade-long absence upon learning from his twin brother, Dale [Taylor Anthony Miller], of their father’s death. Even when Colman sees the Old Man’s [Rob Donohoe] lifeless body, he is not convinced he’s gone. And he is right. The Old Man is very much alive, and before long, all three men are battling for control over the other. Then two uninvited guests [Christopher Kelly and Georgia Warner] arrive, and all hell breaks loose.
This play is basically about our inherent need for family, and the fact that you can’t escape it. All the characters, even the Old Man with his rough facade, are looking for love and acceptance. And no matter how much they try to resist it and combat it, in the end, they come to it because they need it.
Aside from this common theme, what makes House on Fire so effective is the casting. Hayes says he took “great care in casting because he wanted actors who would really bring dimension to these personalities,” and he succeeded. In what must be an exceedingly difficult role to play, Donohoe does a really good job at being likeable in his role as a vulgar, harsh man, who’s totally obsessed with manliness and baseball. Donohoe makes Archie Bunker likeable, and he plays this role with ease. His comedic portrayal of an irascible but lovable Old Man deserves a Tony Award.
Donohoe has done many plays at Dramaworks. His prortrayal of Truman Capote in “Tru,” a one-man show, was by far his best. And in House on Fire, he truly brings the spark that sets this play on fire.
In her role as Lane, Warner balances the act in this male-dominated play. She portrays a young woman whose body is flawed but her mind is perfectly alive with unbelievable hope. She sees and hears what others can’t, and it is her believe in God and desire for a family that forces love to the surface, changing everyone’s lives forever.
On the surface, Kessler’s House on Fire may seem like it is about a lively Old Man and his frazzled sons on the edge fighting for dominance, but deep down it is a play about redemption. Brilliantly played.
House on Fire runs thru December 30 at Palm Beach Dramaworks. For more information or to buy tickets, please visit palmbeachdramaworks.org.
Lyle Kessler’s ‘House on Fire’ Premiers at Dramaworks