By ROBERT HAGELSTEIN
Blogger at lacunaemusing.blogspot.com
Dec. 3, 2018
Palm Beach Dramaworks will stage a world premiere by a leading playwright, Lyle Kessler beginning Dec. 7. “House on Fire” builds in many ways on his highly acclaimed “Orphans” (1983) which is still performed throughout the world, and later turned into a film.
Kessler’s other plays include “The Watering Place” and “Collision.” Another new play, “Perp,” will have its world premiere in New York next March.
Most of Kessler’s plays are about the extreme emotions of a family pushed to the edge, he says. “House on Fire” is a centerpiece in that genre, with the Old Man being challenged by his two sons, one of whom returns after a ten-year absence because he was told his father had died.
His younger brother who still lives with the father writes stories, keeping them locked away unread by anyone. To their surprise, the Old Man suddenly springs to life from his apparent deathbed.
The prodigal son was followed by a grifter and his sister, both of whom he befriended on the road. What ensues changes them all. Kessler walks a fine line between realism and absurdism, embedding parables, baseball metaphors and a form of magical realism into a play which is as funny as it is profound.
Kessler began his career as an actor. “Bruce Dern was a soulmate in acting school, and playing opposite him in ‘Waiting for Godot’ was a revelation,” he says. “I have (Samuel) Beckett in my bones. I then taught myself playwriting by reading and studying ‘A Streetcar Named Desire,’ and have been writing, directing and teaching ever since.”
Bill Hayes, the producing artistic director of Dramaworks, also serves as the play’s director.
“The play emerged on its own merit from its Dramaworkshop, where it underwent few changes,” says Hayes. “All the characters have vulnerabilities. And as Lyle was also an actor, he is open to interpretation.”
“House on Fire” features Dramaworks veteran actor Rob Donohoe, who plays the Old Man. According to Donohoe, his character is “energetic, hardnosed and bombastic.”
“He gets out into the community, involved in baseball and running a newsstand. Relationships mean a lot to him. His character is about creating a legacy, hence his determination to keep the family together, and having a grandchild,” Donohoe says.
Another Dramaworks veteran, Taylor Anthony Miller, plays Dale, the sensitive son who stayed behind.
“Being able to interpret a character that has never been performed on stage before is a great opportunity, especially having the playwright in the room who can immediately communicate his intentions,” says Miller.
Other roles go to Dramaworks newcomers. Prodigal son Coleman is played by Hamish Allan-Headley. “I grew up in a domineering family and left my brother behind, so I can totally relate to my character,” says Allan-Headley.
Christopher Kelly plays the peripatetic, menacing one-armed Noah. “While there are some technical difficulties playing a one armed person, it’s the metaphor of the missing appendage as an emotional wound that I’m focusing on,” says Kelly.
Georgia Warner plays Noah’s sister, Lane, a person with mystical powers who offsets this group of damaged men. “Lane is a complicated character playing a mothering role with a desire to be a real mother,” says Warner. “She is incredibly emotionally smart.”
What constitutes a family? This question has perplexed playwrights since Shakespeare, and the exaggerated realism and comic perspectives of Kessler’s “House on Fire” will have us wondering as well.
“House on Fire” runs from Dec. 7 through Dec. 30. Palm Beach Dramaworks is at 201 Clematis St. in West Palm Beach. To purchase tickets, call the box office at 514-4020 or go online to palmbeachdramaworks.org.
Pictured above from left: Rob Donohoe, Hamish Allan-Headley and Taylor Anthony Miller. Photo by Samantha Mighdoll