“Orphans” begins with a quiet scene of childlike glee and ends with a pained, howling, almost primal scream. Those moments bookend a character study that careens from one dramatic extreme to another: There are sudden bursts of violence, moments of humor and catharsis and a complicated power struggle between two men, both of them provisional parental figures with penchants for crime. This is a challenging, gritty, emotionally taxing piece of theater, expertly directed by Marianne McLaughlin, and it’s the best, most complex show of the Spokane Civic Theatre’s ongoing season.
The play is set in a grubby Philadelphia row house, likely sometime in the 1980s, where two brothers live in relative squalor. The oldest brother is named Treat (Billy Hultquist), who has been raising his younger brother Phillip (Maxim Chumov) since their mother died and their father abandoned them at a young age. Treat is a petty thief, leaving the house every morning to pilfer jewelry from people he encounters on the streets. Phillip’s world doesn’t extend beyond the old swashbucklers he watches on TV and his view from the living room window – he’s been convinced by his older brother that he’s deathly allergic to outside air, so he never leaves the house.
Treat’s lie is certainly a ploy to keep his little brother under his thumb, but Phillip also is keeping his own secret: He’s not illiterate, as Treat believes him to be, hiding books and newspapers under the couch cushions. He also spends much of his time in the closet, where all of his mother’s coats and shoes still are stored. Treat is foul-mouthed and abusive, often flying into unexpected fits of rage; Phillip can’t even tie his own shoes, possessing the wide-eyed naïveté of a person half his age.
One night, Treat comes home from the bar with an older man in tow, a slickly dressed wise guy named Harold (Jamie Flanery), who promptly passes out. Treat discovers Harold’s briefcase is filled with stock certificates that are worth thousands, and he decides he’s going to tie the guy up and hold him for ransom. But Harold, an admirer of Harry Houdini, unties himself while Treat is out of the house, striking up a friendship with Phillip.
Harold ends up hanging around, intending to straighten out the two men who had initially planned to hold him hostage. Why does Harold devote so much attention to two such obviously troubled individuals? Perhaps his intentions are insidious; he can easily mold them into willing accomplices in his criminal enterprises. Or maybe he sees himself in Treat and Phillip – he never knew his parents and tells the brothers horrifying stories of the orphanage where he lived – and envisions himself filling the role of a father figure they so desperately need.
“Orphans,” written by Lyle Kessler, shifts its focus to the push and pull between Harold and the two brothers, and it can’t be stressed enough how important the performances are to the impact of the show. Chumov is the trusting innocent, optimistic but perhaps too gullible. Hultquist is a powder keg, unable to process his emotions and prone to explosions. Flanery is reassuring one moment and intimidating the next. But there’s a touching vulnerability to all the performances, and watching the actors run through the dramatic calisthenics of the show’s closing scenes is as exhausting as it is rewarding.
The final quarter of “Orphans” is equal parts illuminating and devastating, as one of the brothers spirals into a personal crisis and the other begins to realize his full potential. This is a story of desperate characters in a hardscrabble world, and Kessler’s shocking ending reflects that: This isn’t a pleasant night out at the theater; it’s a grueling, draining play, and a crushing silence settles over the room when the lights go down one last time. But if you’re willing to be put through the wringer, “Orphans” is a tremendously rewarding and moving experience, and its simplicity and honesty cut right to the hearts of its characters.
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