The gravitational pull – and push – of family is at the heart of Lyle Kessler’s comic drama, House on Fire, now receiving its world premiere at Palm Beach Dramaworks after years of in-house development.
Prodigal son Colman reluctantly returns to his Fishtown Philadelphia home, a baseball memorabilia-cluttered abode, after 10 years away from his toxic father. But now the Old Man has died, or so says Colman’s brother Dale, the one who stayed behind and dutifully partnered with his dad on a barely surviving neighborhood newsstand.
Colman cannot fathom that his indestructible father could be dead and – spoiler alert – he is not, as a vigorous pinch reveals. Soon the Old Man is belittling his sons again, berating Colman for his wasted, childless existence and scoffing at Dale’s dream of becoming a creative writer.
House on Fire is far stronger on character than it is on plot, but the most significant event occurs when a brother and sister, hot-headed, one-armed Noah and keen-hearing Lane, arrive on the scene by breaking in through a window. They have come to reclaim Colman – notably Lane, who insists she is pregnant with his baby – and perhaps to steal anything of worth in the house.
Each character in his own way is damaged goods, bruised by the misfortunes of life. Each is wary of exposing vulnerabilities, yet clinging to one another, staying afloat by the life preserver of family. Be advised to trust no one, but embrace them all for their inherent worth.
Expect to be drawn to the Old Man, despite his off-putting rants. His attraction is largely due to the underlying appeal of Dramaworks veteran Rob Donohoe (Tru, The Little Foxes), who spouts baseball analogies and clings to his Phillies jersey as a major element of his identity. As Dale, Taylor Anthony Miller is soft-spoken and sensitive, in contrast to Hamish Allan-Headley’s embittered Colman, yet they easily convey a sibling link.
Lane (Georgia Warner) may not be too bright, but she is arguably the play’s most sympathetic character, insisting that she is expecting Colman’s child and expecting him to accept a life tied to her. In contrast, Noah (Christopher Kelly) is the most villainous of the bunch, with his only redeeming feature being a pro ball-worthy pitching arm.
Bill Clarke’s design for the Old Man’s home is so detailed and cluttered, it might as well be the play’s sixth character. No matter what lies ahead for House on Fire, Kessler would be smart to bring Clarke’s set with him. Almost as vital is Donald Edmund Thomas’s lighting plot, which heightens the production’s eeriness as well as the mood of magical realism that director William Hayes musters, a handy way of dismissing narrative points that do not completely add up.
Like Kessler’s most successful work, 1983’s Orphans, the emotional strength of House on Fire is the family dynamic. While none of these characters’ histories is likely to match your own family’s, be prepared to identify with their struggles and strivings.
HOUSE ON FIRE, Palm Beach Dramaworks, 201 Clematis St., West Palm Beach. Through Dec. 30. $75. Call 561-514-4042 or visit www.palmbeachdramaworks.org.