Dramaworks pulls out all stops staging the World Premiere of Lyle Kessler’s House on Fire, a play destined for a sustained life in the theatre world. If Kessler’s name doesn’t spring to mind as quickly as a Sam Shepard, David Mamet, or Edward Albee, American dramatists with whom he has much in common, just wait. He has several new works in development. House on Fire is among his most recent, and it builds in many ways on his highly acclaimed Orphans (1983) which is still being performed throughout the world and was later made into a movie starring Albert Finney. Another new play of his, Perp, will open in New York next March.
House on Fire’s setting is Fishtown, a working class neighborhood in Philadelphia, with its collection of row houses and bars, “on the edge of the Delaware River, home of killers and robbers and four flushers.” The element of gritty living hangs heavily in the play as does the legacy of great family plays, with sons striving for acceptance by the father.
This is where the “Old Man” lives with his son, Dale, the brother who still lives at home. Together, they tend to a newsstand which garners a modest living. Dale is a loner who has been writing stories, carefully depositing them in a safe in his room far from prying eyes. This is the repository of real value, words. Writing or “extrapolating” is Dale’s method of survival.
He is the sensitive twin brother to the vagabond son, Coleman, whose survival MO is flight. After a ten year self-imposed absence, Coleman rushes home upon learning his father has just died. He finds Dale standing by his father’s body covered under a blanket on the couch. Already, things seem unreal, why wasn’t the body moved for nearly two days?
Here the “fun” begins, Kessler revealing his gift for vivid, jousting dialogue, expletives galore, particularly the black comedy which runs throughout the play. The sons amusingly argue back and forth as to whether the father is really dead. Dale, gullible, insists he is. Coleman claims it’s a ploy to get him back home. We later learn the Old Man has sorrowfully marked thousands of X’s on his bedroom wall, one for each day since Coleman left home.
Rob Donohoe, Hamish Allan-Headley, Taylor Anthony Miller
Photo by Samantha Mighdoll
The itinerant Coleman has been followed by a one-armed misfit, Noah, and his sister, Lane, both of whom he befriended while he was on the road, Noah saying “We come across the Great Divide” (either literally from the West Coast or figuratively crossing over from another life). Noah is the product of his own dysfunctional family, a dominating mother who had but three words for her son: “Good for nothing.” He becomes a petty thief, and a protector of his sister, who has magical powers of hearing and feeling. Coleman, who they’ve renamed “Tokie” had been “adopted” by the two of them, rescuing him from the gutter. All of them, sons and intruders alike, find the Old Man to be the center of gravity in this metaphorical and mystical universe of Fishtown.
Kessler walks a fine line between naturalism and absurdism, embedding parables, Aesop's Fables, baseball metaphors, and a form of magical realism into his play which is as funny as it is thought-provoking. Borrowing my own baseball metaphor, this is not a play which is a fast ball down the middle. Much of the action dances unpredictably like a knuckle ball, hard to hit unless one has patience and chokes up on the bat. If you wait out the pitch, there is a discernible arc to the play. Five characters in Fishtown attempt to become a real family, connecting them to the fish in a mythical lake of Dale’s imagination, creatures not understanding a world beyond the lake, and beyond that a “great mysterious universe.” Kessler zooms into each character with a granular clarity and zooms out placing this theatre experience in a transcendental perspective.
At the heart of Kessler’s writing is his characters’ need to connect no matter what the underlying vicissitudes of their upbringing or environment. Kessler underscores this layer of reality by examining the fungibility of truth. The Old Man’s take on the subject says much about his son’s struggles to find themselves: “People who proclaim the truth are speaking a lie. A lie lurks under every truth. A lie is just sitting there biding its time waiting to emerge triumphant. I'll take a Liar every time over a Truth Teller.” Is it no wonder they feel that the Old Man sucked all the oxygen out of the room?
World premieres are a director’s and actor’s joy as well as extraordinarily challenging, tasked with the responsibility to first interpret the playwright’s intensions where none have gone before. Both William Hayes, the Director, along with Kessler, started the auditioning process together, looking for actors who had the right chemistry, ones who are quirky and can act with great heart. Check that objective off with this production!
In spite of a number of physical confrontations in the play, successfully orchestrated by the Fight Choreographer, Lee Soroko, for authenticity and safety, Director Bill Hayes leans heavily towards the interpretive light of hope for each character, for reconciliation of the family itself and a reconstituted family. His pacing of the play brings out the comedy, making the vulnerabilities of the characters as apparent as their volatility. Under Hayes’ expert direction, the play takes on a fully realized life of its own.
Rob Donohoe, Hamish Allan-Headley
Photo by Samantha Mighdoll
The “Old Man” is mesmerizingly played by PBD veteran actor, Rob Donohoe, who also played Dodge in the PBD production of Shepard’s Buried Child several seasons ago. The two characters couldn’t be more different. Dodge was a wretched alcoholic, and the Old Man is animated, opinionated, and even lovable at times. It is a testimony to Rob Donohoe’s acting abilities to portray the foul-mouthed Albanian newsstand owner and long time Phillies fan so naturally, clearly finding his character’s humanity, and in so doing making him larger than life. Donohoe’s interpretation is true to Noah’s description of him, “he is a rugged individualist, maybe the last of the breed.” His performance is a tour de force.
His sensitive son, Dale, is also a PBD veteran, Taylor Anthony Miller, who has to balance his need to be heard while being the more passive sibling. It is a difficult role to play but Miller heartbreakingly captures the essence of a person whose very existence is dependent on his imagination, his ability to “extrapolate” or write, while secreting those writings in an actual safe. He must keep his writing ‘safe’ from exposure, particularly from his father, whose criticism he has endured his entire life. Miller is deeply moving in allowing us to see Dale’s scars, brightening up once when the Old Man compliments his imagination by replying, “That is the nicest thing you’ve ever said to me”.
Dale’s twin brother, Coleman (“Tokie”) is explosively played by PBD newcomer, Hamish Allan-Headley, with an omnipresent level of anger and cynicism. Allan-Headley modulates this fury when he allows his guard down with his father, showing us his vulnerable side. In spite of being a damaged soul, he clearly loves his brother, uneasily bearing the guilt of having abandoned him for ten years without a word of communication.
This is a man desperate to find his own identify and not succeeding. Drifting and drinking to black out has been his way of alleviating pain. Allan-Headley captures the drunken Coleman so convincingly that you could almost smell the alcohol on his breath. He is tripped up by Lane, the girl he left behind who has followed him with a secret of her own. This actor keeps a tight rein on himself, totally convincing the audience that he has returned home unwillingly, only to be forced to confront his own demons.
Christopher Kelly, a PBD newcomer, is the peripatetic, menacing one-armed Noah, with a sinister disregard for the residents of this ramshackle house, except when he feels praised by the Old Man. His sister’s welfare is always paramount as well. Kelly spellbindingly captures his character’s constant struggle to be accepted as a person of worth and to be appreciated as a protector. His is an impressive achievement, playing with one arm and mining Noah’s raw explosive emotions.
Georgia Warner, Christopher Kelly Photo by Samantha Mighdoll
His chemistry with another PBD newcomer, Georgia Warner, who plays his sister, is perceptible. Warner’s Lane is lyrical, mystical, and Warner is intensely aware of Lane’s role as an oasis of kindness in a sea of damaged men. Warner’s Lane has a big heart, 1960’s hippie style. She channels life itself and helps to bring this family together suggesting better times ahead.
The sharp personality difference between brother and sister is beautifully captured in one of their exchanges, when Noah says that “Reality is a sorry business” to which Lane ultimately replies “I prefer flights of fancy.” Her performance adds just the right leveling influence, a beautiful creature, yearning for love and stability. She becomes the light that draws all these damaged men to her.
In addition to a perfect cast for director Bill Hayes to work with, he has an outstanding technical crew. Scenic design by Bill Clarke is reminiscent of the home of the hoarding Collyer Brothers. The past hangs heavily from every nook and cranny of the stage, old magazines, baseball books, posters, baseball cards, bats, stuff shoved here and there, including the soffits. It is the external chaos of the inner life of the man who inhabits the house. It’s just a masterpiece of staging. The physical dimensions of Dramaworks’ wide but shallow stage are a plus in depicting a row house. The furniture and other props have that distressed look of severe neglect over the years.
The lighting also borrows from the physical layout with a bank of lights stage right to depict the one-way light into the row house, and to help define the different times of the day or night, one scene to the next. Lighting designer Donald Edmund Thomas supports the magical realism of the play with dirty lighting (as opposed to clear lighting) and provides motivating lighting in sync with the character’s emotional cues.
Brian O’Keefe’s costume designs ingeniously depict the atmosphere of the play and each character’s personality. It is an amorphous time period, but dress suggests anytime in the last couple decades. Coleman and Noah’s apparel clearly reflect their knock about time on the road while Dale’s is “working class casual.” O’Keefe has imagined and executed the perfect outfits for the Old Man, the ubiquitous stained, off white undershirt and beloved baseball jersey. Lane naturally stands out from the men, with her fringed jeans, braided and beaded hair, billowy tops, reminiscent of the ethereal flower child of the 60s.
Sound designer David Thomas brings in some of the ambient outside sounds you’d hear on an urban street but these are unobtrusive and for atmosphere. The music played at scene changes are clearly to give the audience permission to smile, even inviting tapping one’s toes, all mid century baseball music, some of which I’ve never heard. Naturally, “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” headlines these. Together with lighting, these set the right tone for the show.
Kessler has something important to say about human nature, the family, and the existential nature of existence itself – whether the “balls and strikes” are being “adjudicated” by a “Deaf an' Dumb God.” House on Fire is the work of a playwright of consequence and Dramaworks’ spirited and affecting production of its World Premiere gives it wings.