Review - Mad House
Updated: Feb 6
Moritz von Stuelpnagel
In rural Pennsylvania, Michael has returned to his childhood home to look after his dying father. His siblings Ned and Pam soon arrive, determined to work out how much money Dad actually has left and how they're getting their hands on it.
Mad House is peak family drama material involving an unloving dying parent and greedy children that are after the parent’s wealth. The two Acts have very different themes. While Act 1 focuses on Daniel and Michael’s relationship, Act 2 shifts towards Michael’s siblings’ plot to get hold of Daniel’s remaining assets. While the two are intricately linked, there were some disconnections and could be refined to improve the overall cohesiveness of the story.
Daniel (Bill Pullman), the family patriarch is dying and is cared for by his youngest son, Michael (David Harbour), who was held in a mental health institute until eleven months prior to the events of the story. While Daniel constantly taunts everybody he comes across, his actions towards Michael are particularly severe. All of these lead to a build up towards Daniel’s final request to Michael at the end of Act 2, and given what we have learnt about Daniel throughout the story, these planted a significant level of hesitation within Michael and the audience, doubting the genuineness of the request and whether it is yet another way to set Michael up.
While the cast is composed of exceptional actors, David Harbour and Akiya Henry are without a doubt, the standout performers. Michael’s character is particularly well-developed and we are given an understanding as to why he is the way he is, owing to the constant abuse he received from his father and older siblings. Harbour’s performance is gut wrenching, with his anguish bursting out through his screams and one can clearly envisage a man at his wit’s end. Thus, kudos to Harbour for performing this emotional rollercoaster several shows a week. Similarly, Henry’s rendering of Lillian, a nurse sent by the hospice to look after Daniel, is an immensely empathetic character. Lillian builds a deep connection with Michael during the show's progression, going as far as sharing her painful past with him. This is a particularly impactful portion of the act and I couldn't help but tear up a little as she shared her story. All these are a lead up to Lillian's clash with Pam, protecting Michael from his siblings’ abusive behaviours even at the cost of her job.
On the contrary, while the siblings, Nedward (Stephen Wight) and Pam (Sinéad Matthews) are portrayed as greedy and wanted Michael out of the will, their characters are far less fleshed out and why they harbour such dislike towards Michael in the first place. Despite this, Rebeck's script succeeded in establishing Pam’s immensely unlikeable, manipulative and wicked character, especially considering that Pam does not even make an appearance until the last ten seconds of Act 1.
Frankie Bradshaw’s design of the set provides minimal distraction from the movement of set pieces during the individual acts. While Act 1 took place inside the house, the whole set rotates to show the Porch during Act 2. Given that Daniel is bedbound for the most part and that Nedward and Pam are scheming to inherit all of Daniel’s remaining fortunes, it is unsurprising that the siblings took their argument outside, further from Daniel's prying ears. However, there is a specific section of the story where Lillian hid from the views of Daniel and Nedward to eavesdrop on their conversations. While I could see her crouching behind a wall from where I sat, I am not sure that this is very noticeable depending on where your seat is.
While the plot of greedy children vying to inherit a parent’s wealth has been used time and again in different formats and mediums, Theresa Rebeck has nonetheless crafted a well-thought-out production that instigates a deep audience response. There is a clear demonstration that this family is highly dysfunctional and that the father and older siblings are constantly projecting their issues and shifting their blames onto Michael, the deliberately invented family outcast and black sheep.