Playwright Lyle Kessler’s dark drama, “Orphans,” which has broken box office records around the world, opened at Huntington’s Conklin Barn to a sold-out house on Aug. 20.
Directed with finesse by Jim Bonney, the play explores the primal fear of abandonment and its power over our behavior. Two brothers, Treat (Aaron Dalla Villa) and Phillip (Jay William Thomas), have been dealt a cruel blow by fate. Orphaned as young children by their father’s desertion and the death of their mother, they live hand-to-mouth in a rundown North Philly row house.
Older brother Treat, interpreting the role of a father, supports the pair through petty thievery. To ward off any further abandonment, Treat has instilled Phillip with an intense fear of going outside and limits his access to any kind of knowledge that might empower him. A shut-in who spends most of his time watching The Price is Right, Phillip’s world has eclipsed into a few tiny rooms yet he harbors secrets that would make Treat angry. Hidden under the sofa are books and a painful remnant from the past—one of his mother’s shoes.
The dynamics unexpectedly shift when Treat brings home Harold (Sean King), an inebriated businessman. Although Treat ties Harold up when he goes out to gather information about his ‘kidnap’ victim, Harold easily eludes these restraints and begins to assume the upper hand, both physically and psychologically.
It turns out that Harold himself grew up in a Chicago orphanage. A man with a shady past whose enemies have followed him to Philly, the idea of hiding out while taking these two young men under his wing appeals to him. Harold wants to give these new age “dead end kids” the father figure he never had. Despite his best intentions, will it be easy to usurp the paternal role from Treat?
Harold patiently encourages Phillip to slowly abandon his timeworn routines, delight in new discoveries and venture out into the world. At the same time, he is training Treat to be his emissary in a world in which he no longer feels safe. Treat has never known trust and does not do well when it comes to following rules and handling responsibility. When he feels that this interloper is trespassing on his relationship with his brother, a power struggle ensues.
Audiences will find that the role of Harold, who has unexpectedly found his calling, provides King with the perfect vehicle for doing what he does best: turning the tables to his advantage and waxing nostalgic. His touching soliloquy about his days as an orphan paperboy in Chicago paints an eloquent picture which brings the audience to that windy night that cost his friend his life. It’s a stand-out.
Dalla Villa shines as Treat, the older brother who has been jaded by life, having borne the weight of protector and breadwinner for far too long. Beneath the easy charm and cocky confidence of a streetwise con artist is a seething anger that threatens to boil over at any minute. And erupt it does. Dalla Villa deftly juggles these disparate emotions while maintaining the intensity that the role calls for throughout his performance.
Thomas excels as the otherworldly Phillip, the wide-eyed innocent man-child who delights in Harold’s simple gift of a map of North Philadelphia and views the nightly illumination of the streetlamps as miraculous. He envisions beauty in simple things that Treat can no longer see. Phillip personifies hope.
The ending wields an unexpected blow. What audiences come away with is that none of us are so different from these orphans. Love or any form of emotional attachment is inevitably coupled with risk and the pain of loss. What makes Bonney and King’s production of ‘Orphans’ so extraordinarily moving is that it touches those vulnerable places in the heart that reside in all of us.
The Conklin Barn is located at 2 High Street off New York Ave. in Huntington. The show runs through Sept. 5. Tickets are $25 and can be purchased at brownpapertickets.com. On Sept. 4, theatergoers can meet the playwright, Lyle Kessler, who will engage in a Q&A session after the performance.