Lyle Kessler’s “Orphans” is a probing character study about wayward souls and broken men, and it deals with issues of abandonment, death, deception, masculinity and violence. It’s also kind of a comedy.
The play opens tonight at Spokane Civic Theatre, and director Marianne McLaughlin says the show’s deliberate shifting between humor and heartache is part of its strange appeal.
“It is a black comedy in a lot of ways, but it’s very dark,” she said. “I mean, you have to have some relief. There’s some great humor in this, but then you’re also dealing with … the idea of being an orphan and what that entails, and the idea of being abandoned and how that affects your life. … There’s some wonderful, funny banter that goes on, but there’s always that dark side, going from something very funny – as we do in our own lives – to something much more serious.”
The story concerns two 20-something brothers, one of them street-wise, the other a recluse. The hermit is Phillip (Maxim Chumov), who, believing he’s plagued with deadly allergies, rarely ever leaves the row house apartment he shares with his older brother Treat (Billy Hultquist). While Treat, a petty thief, leaves the house every day, Phillip spends his time in a closet with his dead mother’s clothes, and everything he knows about the outside world comes from the things he reads in books and the reruns he secretly watches on TV.
The brothers’ daily routine remains etched in stone, until Harold (Jamie Flanery), a shady older man Treat brings home after meeting him in a bar, enters their lives. Treat knows Harold is evading some kind of threat, and his intention is to hold the guy for ransom. Instead, Harold ends up getting closer to Treat and Phillip than either of them anticipated.
“Harold is kind of a Chicago gangster type, but the playwright never really reveals clearly what he is hiding from,” McLaughlin said. “He’s an orphan as well, and he becomes sort of a surrogate father and teacher to them.”
“Orphans” premiered in 1983, was adapted into a feature film in 1987 and was revived on Broadway in 2013 with Alec Baldwin and Ben Foster. Other actors to appear in various productions include Al Pacino, John Mahoney, Albert Finney and Jesse Eisenberg, and among its outspoken admirers are musicians Lou Reed and Tom Waits. The show itself is, if you think about it, sort of a companion to the work of both Reed and Waits, in its bittersweet depiction of seedy characters coming to terms with their pasts.
“The show goes from being hyper realistic to a parable,” she said, “and Harold is really the one that reinforces that with the different stories he tells the boys. Treat is very violent, and Harold is trying to curb that violence. … With Phillip, I think he’s opening up his world to the possibility of leaving and going outside.”
Because the action of “Orphans” is limited to a single location and features a cast of three, much of the emotional weight falls on the shoulders of the actors, who must command attention at every moment. McLaughlin praises her cast, and she says that working with Chumov, Hultquist and Flanery in sculpting the characters’ complicated back stories helped shape the final product.
“It’s been a really wonderful collaboration, and they’ve really thrown themselves into these characters,” McLaughlin said. “You hope that by the end of the show the audience cares about these characters, and maybe, in some way, they see themselves or something they’ve experienced in these characters.”
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