When a play begins with the line “Is he dead?” you know the stakes are going to be high. Such is the case in House on Fire, a new dark comedy enjoying in its world premiere run at Palm Beach Dramaworks in West Palm Beach through December 30.
Playwright Lyle Kessler builds a world at once universally familiar and utterly idiosyncratic. All of the action takes place in a rundown home in the working-class Philadelphia neighborhood of Fishtown. The lights rise on two brothers, Colman (Hamish Allan-Headley) and Dale (Taylor Anthony Miller), who are towering over their “dead” father’s body. Surrounded by bric-a-brac and remnants of their father’s life, the duo has a lot to catch up on as it’s the first time Colman has returned in 10 years. Eventually, it’s revealed that the Old Man (Rob Donohoe) isn’t, in fact, dead but has just been playing the part in order to lure Colman home.
This is just the first abnormal turn of events in a play propelled by magical realism and familial infighting. A few scenes in, two roustabouts, Noah (Christopher Kelly) and Lane (Georgia Warner), enter the picture and spur even more conflict. As things shake out, this unlikely group forms a sort of pseudo family—one united by a thirst for love and a deep-seated need for redemption.
The Old Man is the nucleus of the action here, and Rob Donohoe is masterful in the role. A favorite of the South Florida theater scene, Donohoe has the uncanny ability to infuse a stereotypical curmudgeon with personality and—dare I say—compassion. While the brothers lament his shortcomings, the Old Man hints at the motivation behind his behavior and the pain he’s felt having a fissure in his family. Donohoe knows how to sell this role without pandering to the audience. His natural comedic talent buttresses the play’s humor but never comes across as greedy or needy. And while the Old Man experiences, perhaps, the least amount of transformation across the two-hour production, he acts as an unexpected guru to the rest of the gang and welcomes them with open arms.
The rest of the ensemble plays best when paired with their respective siblings. Hamish Allan-Headley’s Colman seems to be your run-of-the-mill Philly meathead, but through conversations with Dale and a willingness to embrace his past, he comes to accept that he needs love in his life. Allan-Headley digs into an emotional evolution that reads as true to the character and relatable on so many levels. As Colman’s twin brother, Dale, Taylor Anthony Miller is a shrinking violet with a loyal strike. He’s the one who’s stayed the course with his father, all the while harboring a passion for writing and creating worlds all his own. When this skill set comes to light, Dale finally flourishes. Miller excels at fleshing out Dale’s inner world by capturing the character’s acceptance of the uncertainty and excitement a fresh chapter entails.
A lot House on Fire’s comedic relief comes courtesy of the brother-sister pair of Noah and Lane. As hippie-dippie Lane, Georgia Warner marries wide-eyed enthusiasm with empathy for all those around her. The only female of the cast, she immediately imbues the play with a much-needed energy shift and is the sole person who knows how to tame Noah, played with push-and-pull rage and reflection by Christopher Kelly. A one-armed man with a lot of baggage, Noah is probably the most peculiar piece in the bizarre puzzle that is this play.
But, much like family itself, it’s the peculiarities and shared experiences that make us stronger. House on Fire leans into these oddities to illustrate the idea that redemption is never out of reach and family can be forged out of admiration, a shared misanthropy, and a healthy dash of fear.
*This review is based on a preview performance of House of Fire. Prior to the preview, the reviewer attended Studio 201, a young professionals mixer that encourages networking and theatergoing. Tickets for Studio 201 events are $25, and dates are scheduled for the remainder of the Palm Beach Dramaworks season. They include: January 30, The Spitfire Grill; March 27, Fences; and May 15, The House of Blue Leaves. For more information, visit palmbeachdramaworks.org