THEATER | Urban Samurai’s “Halfway Home” is funny but slight

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Long ago, the bright lights of the Twin Cities seduced me away from the Iowa hamlet of my formative years. Returning there can be a little like stepping back in time—not because Iowa isn’t modernized (spare me the jokes), but because when you revisit a place from your past you cannot help but to be drawn back to that time. This is true whether you are from Iowa or Svalbard. And so it is in Diane Bank’s Halfway Home, the play currently being produced by local company Urban Samurai Productions.

halfway home, a play written by diane bank and directed by matthew greseth. presented by urban samurai productions through january 18 at the jewish community center, 4330 cedar lake rd. s., st. louis park. for tickets ($14) and information, see urbansamuraipro.com.

The story centers around Susan, who left Iowa ten years prior for the allure of New York, and due to a psychotic breakdown is now returning to her family—with whom she has had limited contact with for the past decade. The play isn’t so much about the contrast between life in the city and life in the country as it is about family, relationships, and unfinished business. When Susan steps across the threshold of her childhood home she discovers some very important lessons about herself and her kin (and also how life in hectic New York City is a breeze compared to an Iowa family gathering).

Halfway Home starts out on a very positive note with a soliloquy from Susan (Amy Vickroy), an increasingly unhinged New York City tour bus guide. Vickroy’s comedic timing is spot-on, and she gradually lets the tension build until certain events are set into motion that leave Susan fleeing cross-country back to Iowa, having kidnapped taxi driver Nick (Ryan Grimes). The first act of the play contrasts Susan’s cross-country flight with her anxious family awaiting her arrival back home.

Foremost in Susan’s welcoming committee is her mother, Marge, played wonderfully by Ellen Apel. Marge is the quintessential Midwestern mother: anxious, passive-aggressive, and delicately manipulative. While Apel’s accent is a little confusing (especially when she starts to slip into a Southern inflection), she does a very good job as the counterweight to Vickroy. There are three sisters as well: cold, calculating Carol (Emma Gochberg); vacant babymaker Anne (Anna Olson); and black sheep lesbian Brenda (Rebecca Gebhart). Adding a little more fuel to the fire are neurotic neighbor Babby (Shan Eisenberg) and Brenda’s partner, Gwen (played like a lesbian Arthur Fonzarelli by Marcia Svaleson).

Where the play works best is in the comedy. Though at times the play comes off a little like an episode of Roseanne, the absurdity of the characters—from Grimes’s philosopher/cab driver to Olson’s wallpaper-paste-eating mother-to-be—brings quite a few laughs. Unfortunately the play also calls for a certain degree of poignancy, which is where it doesn’t succeed quite as well. Vickroy, though she excels as the maniacal tour operator, falls a little flat in the more sentimental interactions with her family. The sisters too, while good at bickering and fighting, are less adept at pulling off genuine affection. Nonetheless, where it succeeds, Halfway Home does so in spades. Some genuine belly laughs are more than enough to make up for the lack of emotional weight.

Jon Behm (jonbehm@gmail.com) is a Minneapolis-based photographer and writer. While his specialty is music, Jon has a wide variety of interests that tend to take him all over the Twin Cities on a daily basis.

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