No one can pile on festering resentments and sharpshooter snark quite like our nearest and dearest. Tolstoy was no doubt right when he wrote that happy families are all the same, while the unhappy ones explore misery in every stripe and variety (no need to thank me for the rewrite, Count Leo). In the Urban Samurai production of Halfway Home, Diane Bank's middling satire of Midwestern family life, misbehavior and maladjustment are things to rail about, conditions to wallow in, and finally forces that produce inevitable defeat.
Matters commence on a tour bus in New York on the most miserable, sweltering day of the summer. Guide Susan (Amy Vickroy) stares into the middle distance with mounting alarm—they're stuck in Midtown gridlock, the air conditioner is on the blink, and the windows are welded shut. As Susan tries to placate her passengers we notice a few little slips, such as her aside about the glories of a city "where even the unspeakable is possible."
Vickroy delivers this monologue with a convincing stew of frustration and barely suppressed hostility (she stands alone at the foot of the stage, spotlit), though unfortunately our insight into her character more or less ends with the gunshot that ends the scene. Next we're in a little home in Iowa, where mother Marge (Ellen Apel) prepares a coming-home party for Susan, along with Susan's sisters Anne (Anna Olson) and Carol (Emma Gochberg).
Urban Samurai Productions at Sabes Jewish Community Center
through January 18
Susan has sent along a telegram indicating that she's in "dire straits" and heading home after 10 years of estrangement and silence. It's quickly apparent why Susan felt compelled to seek a change of scenery—of the two sisters we meet in the early going (one more arrives later), the very pregnant Anne is terminally checked-out by the rigors of family life, while Carol drips enough insecurity and disdain to make protracted dental work preferable to her company.
The dark star around which this galaxy of discomfort orbits is the widow Marge, a mother so intent on tamping down any sign of true expression that she hovers about in a high-wire state of manic denial. (Her voice rising, Marge insists that, in her family, "Nobody's crazy or different. We're all nothing.") Apel's expressions and timing are sharp and caustic, whether Marge is terrified that some true emotion might surface in her home, whispering undermining judgments, or pitting her daughters against one another.
Matt Greseth directs this ensemble with clarity, though the intersection between drama and comedy here provides a mild spark rather than truly discomfiting friction. Bank avoids condescending to her characters (their foibles are entirely their own, not the manifestation of some small-town inferiority), but events begin to play out with a kind of sitcom inevitability (a tornado brews outside, a touched-in-the-head neighbor arrives, intercut scenes show Susan barreling toward home with a New York taxi driver she recruited at gunpoint).
None of which detracts from the undeniable fascination of watching these characters clang and clatter against one another into the second act. Cab driver Nick (Ryan Grimes) provides all sorts of ersatz Zen wisdom, when not wincing from the latest hurled barb, and Apel supplies convincing squirm as Marge tries to shut out the reality of her daughter Brenda (Rebecca Gebhart) and her lover Gwen (Marcia Svaleson, sporting a shit-eating grin of sardonic disbelief).
In the end, though, it feels as if Vickroy has too little to work with. Susan's thwarted attempts at evolution merely hurl her into the next void that comes along, and when the lights go out over a final petty complaint, it's clear that nothing in that Iowa house has changed, or ever will. Which is the point, of course, but it's a minor and deflating one to make (even if it bears a striking resemblance to family life as many of us know it).