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“Orphans”–Fostering and Festering


This year the 1983 play “Orphans” by Lyle Kessler is nominated for two Tony Awards: Outstanding  Revival of a Broadway Play and Outstanding Featured Actor (Tom Sturridge).  I hope that this emotional tour-de-force wins both awards!

This play debuted with Ben Foster (from “Six Feet Under”) as Treat, Tom Sturridge (“Being Julia”) as Philip, and Alec Baldwin (“30 Rock”) as Harold.  The story opens in a  dilapidated Philadelphia house shared by two brothers: Treat, a small-time hoodlum, and his younger mentally disabled brother Philip, who hides in a closet when Treat is not home. Philip is afraid of life outside.  With dire warnings from Treat every day, Philip darts around the house, jumping from couch to stairs, like Spider-Man or a flying squirrel. Treat has forced his brother to live a dangerously isolated existence through lies and insults.

The brothers’ delicate and codependent relationship is thrown off-balance after Treat brings home a drunk man, Harold, whom he has met in a bar and has kidnapped.  Harold has a criminal past and a suitcase full of stocks and bonds. When Treat’s plan goes awry, Harold hires him to be his bodyguard and, having himself been an orphan, sees some of himself in the two young men.  Soon he moves in and becomes their surrogate father.

Since the two brothers have lived alone since they were kids, Harold appears to be the kind of father the boys have always longed for.  He introduces the ways of a gentleman (fashion, international food, home decor) and Philip ingests everything. But Harold poses a threat to Treat who has relished his power as Philip’s father figure.  Yet Treat’s role as a father has not only wounded his younger brother but also borders on self-destruction. Treat’s discovery that Philip has taught himself how to read is a heartbreaking and emotionally explosive scene. (Think “The Glass Menagerie” when the mother realizes her daughter is more aware than she had assumed.)

The three actors eviscerate each other–ferociously–but also desperately need each other. The ferocity of the rage is raw and intimidating, unforgettable and daunting.  As Treat Foster’s rage is a dangerous assault on himself.  Baldwin’s Harold is genuinely caring and enormously humorous.

And Sturridge is playing the sort of role that comes with “Tony nominee” blazoned on his chest: a mentally challenged, socially deprived character. When he realizes the role his brother has played in stunting his development, he manically flies from the couch to the stair banister and back, sweat dripping and mucus running down his chin and t-shirt.  He has inhabited the part as if possessed by it.  The physicality is astonishing.

By the end of the play the audience was stunned, most especially by Sturridge’s astounding acting. Philip may be the unstable character in “Orphans”, but he’s the one you remember.A contemporary “Death of a Salesman” meets “Glass Menagerie”, the play surprises at every level. This play deserves to be televised as well as produced in other venues.   “Orphans” well deserves its two Tony nominations.

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