Visitors come to a beautiful island seeking to fulfill their hopes and are greeted by an enigmatic host with a foreign accent and his short assistant. A description of the old ABC show Fantasy Island with Ricardo Montalban? No, Norman Allen’s The House Halfway running as part of the Source Festival is much smarter and very different.
Guests check in at Dandle House, a bed and breakfast on a Caribbean island, with the intent on ending their lives. The proprietor of Dandle House is Dorothy (Claire Carroll), who runs the place with British stiff upper lip firmness. We initially meet Dorothy and her young assistant Robbie (Will Beech) carrying a dead man out of the house in a body bag.
The services at Dandle House include a variety of assisted suicide options, but guests are allowed a few days to consider whether they really want to leave this life (as long as they pay cash in advance.) Dandle House makes no judgments and considers an individual’s loss of choice in their own mortality to be a great sin, whether caused by a murderer or a well-meaning relative.
Among the Dandle House guests are Earnest (Chris Mancusi), who seems dissatisfied with his occupation and lacks any life passion; Faye (Jasmin Danielle), a seemingly happy young woman who is disappointed that the reality of life is not a fairy tale; and, Tyler (Matthew Rubbelke), a witty young gay man who went blind at the age of 10. Of course, as Dorothy states, “People tend to be a bit more complex.”
The pot gets stirred when Earnest’s wife Lydia (Nora Achrati) unexpectedly arrives. She is angry, religious, and virulently anti-suicide. She states that Dandle House is not the answer, to which Dorothy replies “Of course not, it’s the question.”
Twenty years ago a controversial book called “Final Exit: The Practicalities of Self-Deliverance and Assisted Suicide for the Dying” caused a sensation (and spent 18 weeks in the number one spot on the New York Times’ nonfiction bestseller list). Yet playwright Norman Allen is less interested in the sensationalism of assisted suicide than the philosophical and religious questions underlying the concept.
The discussions about the moral and ethical implications of suicide are fascinating, including a revisionist interpretation of the story of Judas. Yet while these discussions are always interesting, The House Halfway offers so much more than a debate over the suicide. The characters are well-drawn characters and have interesting interrelationships. The play is liberally seasoned with well-crafted dollops of humor. The storytelling is excellent and features a couple of jaw-dropping plot twists.
As the play progresses, the audience comes to realize that there may be other forces at work at Dandle House. To say more would be a criminal spoiler, but expect to be talking about The House Halfway long after you’ve left the theatre.
The production is enhanced by an outstanding cast, especially Claire Carroll as the magisterial Dorothy, Nora Achrati as the initially unlikeable Lydia, and Matthew Rubbelke as the wise-cracking Tyler. Raymond O. Caldwell direction highlights their interactions and deals with the play’s uncertainties with a delicate touch.
The professionalism of playwright Norman Allen is evident throughout this work. Local audiences may have seen some of his works at Signature Theatre, including the lauded and award-winning Nijinsky’s Last Dance and In the Garden. Yet The House Halfway may be his finest work; it’s certainly the most provocative of those this reviewer has seen.
It’s rare to find theatrical works that manage to be both entertaining and this intelligent. The House Halfway is reminiscent of a Tom Stoppard play, only more focused and accessible. The House Halfway is not just the highlight of the Source Festival; it’s one of the best plays in Washington, DC this season. Try and get a seat at one of the few remaining performances and you will be richly rewarded.
The House Halfway
By Norman Allen
Directed by Raymond O. Caldwell
Produced by The Source Festival
Reviewed by Steven McKnight
Running time: 1 hour 25 min (no intermission)