Orphans is a poignant tale of fathers and sons
Jack Wefso, Christian Mast and Rick Yaconis in Orphans.
The entrance to Edge Theatre is in a small, gray Lakewood strip mall, but once you open the door and step inside, you encounter a warm, colorful space that includes three rooms serving as galleries for local artists, a bar and — of course — the auditorium, cunningly curtained and designed around the limitations of a building never intended as a theater. Edge has been around for three years now, supporting area playwrights; running its own awards system, the Edgies; and putting on a mix of plays — some new and daring, others by playwrights frequently seen around here: Mamet, Miller, Tennessee Williams, Neil Labute.
Lyle Kessler's Orphans, which kicks off the fourth season, was first staged in 1983. It was revived last year in a New York production starring Alec Baldwin, a show that created a fair amount of gossip when another of the three cast members got crosswise with the notoriously volatile Baldwin and was dismissed. The spat may be an indication of just how charged this script remains, and the physical and emotional strain of performing it.
The action opens on a bleak apartment with worn furniture and stains on the walls. This is the home of a pair of brothers so undeveloped and embryonic that — though both are now fully adult — they still define themselves as orphans: Their father deserted the family when they were little; their mother died. Phillip has mental problems of some kind. He twitches, walks with a spidery shamble, endlessly twists his fingers. Older brother Treat has taken on a paternal role that he's utterly incapable of fulfilling. He's alternately violent and clumsily nurturing, providing tuna sandwiches, cuffing and infantilizing Phillip, convincing him that he must never go outside because of an intense allergic reaction he once had as a child. Treat supports this miserable life in which all joy and discovery have been choked off through theft and violence.
One night Treat brings home a well-dressed drunken businessman named Harold, whom he's selected as an easy mark. He plans to get Harold drunk, tie him up and contact his associates, demanding ransom. But Harold isn't who he seems to be, and pretty soon he's turned the tables. When he takes control of the household, you're never quite sure whether his intentions are kindly or sinister: He tries to civilize Treat and broaden Phillip's limited horizons, but it's all in the service of scams that are never fully explained and involve a briefcase full of stocks and bonds. Orphans remain a potent symbol throughout, as Harold reveals that he's an orphan, too, reminisces about the Dead End Kids of the 1930s movies, and sings, "If I had the wings of an angel, over these prison walls would I fly..."
The play veers skillfully and deliberately between grimy realism and the fluidly fantastical as it focuses on an ever-shifting power balance between the three protagonists as well as the human need for nurturance and recognition. Harold is a tough guy and a criminal, but he's also a dark, intervening angel who feeds Phillip's hunger for knowledge and ultimately reveals that Treat is less capable of functioning in this world than his defective brother, and is just as desperately in need of human warmth — even if he's incapable of recognizing that warmth when it's offered.
Despite the gritty, menacing tone, Orphans, with its touching ending, could feel a bit like a Hallmark card if the actors, under the direction of Robert Kramer, weren't so deeply committed to their work. Christian Mast immerses himself fully in the character of Phillip, projecting both pathos and unexpected strength. Rick Yaconis is a smooth, strong, compelling Harold, though now and then I wondered if he shouldn't have appeared a touch more dangerous throughout. But if Harold's dangerousness is implied, Treat's is right on the surface, mixed with feelings of loss and grief, and so out of control that it threatens not only those who oppose him, but also his own essential sanity. Jack Wefso communicates this brilliantly in a vulnerable, balls-out performance. At the end, you leave this cozy theater feeling both emotionally shaken and quietly satisfied.
And touched, thanks to a coda for an evening so focused on fathers and sons. Mast tells us in a program note that his own father died recently: "He was incredibly supportive in everything I chose to do..." Mast writes. "Thank you, Dad, this one is for you."
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