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A CurtainUp Review

Halfway Home

Novelist Thomas Wolfe said "you can't go home again." Susan, (Welker White) the trigger character in Halfway Home has lived by Wolfe's credo for ten years. Suddenly she realizes that her temporary job as a New York City tour guide has become a permanent dead end while her relationship with her boy friend has turned out to be temporary. In a fit of manic urgency she turns on a tour group from South Yemen and hijacks a cab and its driver to transport her back to the family occupying the American Gothic landscape of her past which no amount of time and distance could erase.

The prologue in which Susan goes postal in the middle of her cheery tour guide spiel is the setup for the play's farcical humor. The fact that home is Iowa, a state identified with idealized images of America , and that her long overdue homecoming coincides with cataclysmic weather conditions, foreshadows the stormy nature of the family reunion to follow.

As the play seagues to Ankeny, Iowa and the family preparations for Susan's arrival, it quickly becomes clear that the central character of Diane Bank's play is her widowed mother Marge (Judy Frank). She is the puppet master on whose string her four daughters dangled and developed such requisite emotional tics as alcoholism, compulsive eating, dependency, guilt, denial and low self-esteem. It's just as quickly apparent that the three daughers who remained in Iowa still dangle and that Susan hasn't really cut loose the strings. Marge is even more off the normalcy curve than her children. In short, the apples did not fall far from the tree in this dramatized look at a not so typical small town American family.

But Marge is no Mommie Dearest. She is self-deluded and determinedly views troubling truths through rose-colored glasses. She is a non-listener who, with nary a hint at premeditation, plays off one daughter against the other. In spite of this, she is as funny as she is hellishly manipulative. As deftly portrayed by Judy Frank, she is also the playwright's most fully realized character. The scene when she and Susan face each other for the first time in ten years is a brilliant display of her ability to turn awfulness into awkward vulnerability. You can almost feel her arms twitching to reach out and give Susan the hug that would be normal. When that hug finally comes, it's as funny as its absence is sad.

Fortunately, even though none of the other characters are as fully developed, the entire cast is top notch. The three actors playing the sisters who lead their lives of not so quiet discontent in Arceny manage to rise above their archetypal roles: Kate Levy as the razor-tongued ex-alcoholic; Jill Bowman; as the ever pregnant and eating Anne; and Christina Rouner as Brenda, mom's exasperated errand girl. Brenda's roommate Gwen is ably played by Christine Chang and Nick Sandow adds some nice touches as the as the taxi driver and only male. If I had to single out one other star actor (besides Judy Frank) who makes this play worth seeing, that honor would have to go to Lori Mahl's portrayal of Babby. As the next-door neighbor married to Carol's abusive ex-boyfriend, Babby fits into the family's dysfunctional pattern so smoothly she could be the fifth sister. As Ms. Frank's Marge is a non-nourishing mother who provides some nonstop laughter, so Ms. Mahl's Babby manages to be a sprightly and, yes, funny abused wife.

Kevin Price's down to the last detail homespun set, like the seemingly ideal American family it houses, is wonderfully double-layered, with one hokey picture covered wall of Marge's comfortably shabby house regularly sliding open to reveal more expressionistic scenes. Steven Williford who so smartly directed Pera Palas (see link) last season, has staged Halfway Home with cinematic stylishness that makes this an easy-to-enjoy, fast-paced two hours that almost make you overlook the script's many loose ends.

Our review of Pera Palas

By Diane Bank
Directed by Steven Williford
With (in order of appearance) Welker White, Judy Frank, Kate Levy, Jill Bowman, Nick Sandow, Lori Mahl, Christina Rouner, Christina Chang
Set design: Kevin Price
Costume design: Daryl A. Stone
Lighting design: James Vermeulen
Sound design: Robert Murphy
Original Music: Jason Starr
Presented by the New Group at The Theater at St. Clements
2/16/99-3/31/99; opened 3/02/99
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer, seen 3/01/99
Closing two weeks early on 3/14

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