Original Musical 'Halfway There' Looks at Mental Illness in a New Light | Theater | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Original Musical 'Halfway There' Looks at Mental Illness in a New Light

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Published May 25, 2022 at 10:00 a.m.


Director Peter Bowley (right) in rehearsal with the cast of Halfway There - JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • Director Peter Bowley (right) in rehearsal with the cast of Halfway There

With masked faces, the cast and crew of the original musical comedy Halfway There circled up for rehearsal in a multipurpose room at Montpelier's Bethany United Church of Christ. Set in a group home for people making the transition from inpatient psychiatric care to independent living, the show explores various states of mental well-being.

With the team circled up around him, director and lead actor Peter Bowley relayed a grim message: With less than two weeks to go before the show's opening, three cast members had contracted COVID-19. Though they were likely to recover by tech rehearsal the following week, their absence darkened the normally jubilant group.

Then a cast member quipped, "Jim can do five roles at once," referring to the show's writer and composer, Jim Thompson. The tension evaporated.

"You should see me in heels," Thompson snapped back, crossing the room. After a good laugh, the group carried on with a run-through of the show's second act.

That split-second shift from seriousness to whimsy crystallized the essence of Halfway There. But the outbreak was ultimately no laughing matter. The scene described above took place in April, when the show was originally scheduled to premiere. Because the virus continued to rip through the cast and crew, the show was postponed until this Friday and Saturday, May 27 and 28, at the Barre Opera House.

Thompson, 68, said the postponement was "only going to make the show that much better." He pointed out that May is Mental Health Awareness Month, a happy coincidence.

A longtime musician and educator, Thompson loosely based Halfway There on experiences that he had about 35 years ago while working at Plainfield's Spruce Mountain Inn, a residential transitional living program.

"[At first,] I was having trouble distinguishing between who were staff and who were clients," he said during a video chat.

In the show, new resident Claire (Erin Rathier-Bogart) initially mistakes fellow resident and love interest Max (Bowley) for a staffer. Her confusion, and Thompson's, pose the question: What is "crazy," a term used frequently in the show, and who gets to define it?

The ensemble show features 16 actors who play characters confronting their demons amid family drama and romantic tension. At the center is anxious, agoraphobic Max and his journey toward independence.

Actor Erin Rathier-Bogart singing during rehearsal - JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • Actor Erin Rathier-Bogart singing during rehearsal

The show's plot and dialogue explore themes of psychological trauma and the stigma surrounding it. The set is divided between a stage-right staff room and a stage-left client room. Separated by a wall, the characters carry on distinct, crisscrossing, occasionally related conversations.

Their segregation implies a similar societal divide, one that the show works to break down. Songs such as "I'm Crazy Too" and "A Little Crazy in Me" show how the characters define "crazy" and how supposed weaknesses can become strengths when seen in the proper light. For instance, in the latter number, case manager Nancy (Ann Greenan Naumann) expresses her envy of Claire's wild streak, even though Claire's erratic behavior is part of what landed her in psychiatric care.

Thompson drew inspiration not only from his time at Spruce Mountain Inn but from his family's experiences with mental illness. His sister, Mary Lou, died of complications related to anorexia. His brother, Bobby, was diagnosed with schizophrenia at a young age and died in his twenties of a drug overdose.

Nonetheless, Thompson keeps up a lighthearted attitude. He recalled a remark his mother used to make, inspired by Thomas Anthony Harris' 1967 self-help book, I'm OK — You're OK. "She said, 'I'm gonna write a book: I'm OK, You're OK, but My Kids Are All Crazy,'" he said through a hearty chuckle.

Thompson conceptualized some of the show's story and wrote a few songs during his time at Spruce Mountain Inn, he said, but he didn't begin work in earnest until 2018. A semiprofessional musician for decades, Thompson isn't classically trained and can't read music. But the magic of composing software helped him transcribe his work into a formal score.

"Every tune has everything it would need to have when I'm looking at a professional Broadway score," musical director Dov Schiller said. Though all of the songs are imbued with theatrical panache, they hop genres from jazz to country to gospel, resulting in an eclectic stew.

With no established production company behind it, Halfway There is a bit of an outlier in Vermont's theater scene. Though Thompson raised some funds through crowdsourcing and program ad sales, he also put up a fair amount of his own money to finance the show, making it a true passion project.

The show's leads, Bowley, 25, and Rathier-Bogart, 33, are both graduates of noteworthy institutions who serendipitously entered Thompson's orbit.

A Burlington High School alum, Bowley trained at the Stella Adler Studio of Acting, which is affiliated with New York University's Tisch School of the Arts. After graduating, he worked as a server on the Spirit of Ethan Allen, where Thompson regularly played piano. Bowley joined Thompson for a few Frank Sinatra tunes. Impressed, Thompson asked him to audition for Halfway There and later to take on the show's direction.

Musical director Dov Schiller working with the cast of Halfway There - JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • Musical director Dov Schiller working with the cast of Halfway There

Rathier-Bogart, who hails from Australia, studied at the Australian Institute of Music in Sydney. In 2020, just weeks before the pandemic lockdown, she came to Vermont on her honeymoon with her American husband to visit family. After weighing their options, the couple decided to stay in the Green Mountains rather than return to Sydney.

Bowley and Rathier-Bogart described their own experiences with mental illness. Rathier-Bogart said she's struggled with anxiety her whole life and sees a lot of herself in Claire.

"It's very rare to find a character that you can actually go, 'They're going through something pretty real that I can pull from,'" she said.

Bowley recalled that his first year of college was particularly tough.

"I was really depressed, and I ended up taking medical leave," he said. During his semester away from school, he was "forcibly admitted" to the University of Vermont Medical Center for three days, he said, because of potential for self-harming behavior.

"It was a really mind-blowing, eye-opening experience," he said. "Being [there] with other people, some of whom had been there for years, and sort of seeing what their lives were like and what their dreams were — I think I see a lot of that in this show."

Though its themes are heavy, Halfway There is primarily a hopeful story, and one likely to spark conversation.

"I think the humor in the show almost makes the situations easier to swallow," Rathier-Bogart said. "You could watch the show and [say], 'That was really funny. But also, now I'm thinking about this, and maybe I'm a little uncomfortable because I laughed at that joke earlier on.'"

Halfway There by Jim Thompson, directed by Peter Bowley, Friday and Saturday, May 27 and 28, 7:30 p.m., at the Barre Opera House. $20-25. Recommended for ages 13 and up. halfwaymusical.com

The original print version of this article was headlined "Get Well Soon"