Thursday, March 15, 2018

Review of "Amy and the Orphans"

The play, Amy and the Orphans, can be a painfully realistic examination of how society looks at and treats individuals with developmental disabilities.  To her credit, playwright Lindsey Ferrentino has managed to make powerful statements—both overt and subtly—that is tinged with humor and poignancy.

The plot toggles between a twenty-something couple coming to grips with their troublesome relationship and, years later, scenes with their grown-up children--Maggie (Debra Monk) and Jacob (Mark Blum)—both in their late 50’s, early 60’s, and their younger sister Amy (Jamie Brewer), a younger woman with Down’s Syndrome living in a Group Home.  We quickly learn their father has recently passed (their mother died years earlier) and Maggie and Jacob have flown into New York City to pick up Amy, gently break the word to her, and head to his home to settle his affairs.  Along for the ride is Kathy (Vanessa Aspillaga), Amy’s no-nonsense aid.

From their very first interaction with Amy, the two siblings are not only over-productive of their sister, but treat her almost as if she was still a child, not a grown, semi-independent living adult.  Sadly, within the context of Amy’s life these condescending attitudes began at an early age with the way the entire family approached their “different” sister, rarely visiting her or realizing her vast potential.   Maggie and Jacob don’t even know she has a day job, a relationship, and understands the world and its surroundings.  She knows about her father’s death thanks to Kathy, who gives a puzzling look when informed the woman was never informed.

As the play progresses, the audience learns more about the family dynamics, both when Amy was very young and today.  It is important to note that the portion of the show given over to the young parents and their heart-wrenching discussions and decisions takes place in the 1960’s when children with developmental disabilities were, more often than not, shunted to state-run facilities.  At one climatic point the name Willowbrook is spewed from Kathy’s lips.  You could fill the recoil from the mostly older audience members who remembered the scandal and horrors of the former Staten Island facility.

As the play concludes, after a chilling and climatic scene, there is a better understanding and a new awareness between the three remaining family members.  We can only hope that is the direction all the characters take.

Ms. Ferrentino has painted an honest, at times playful and bittersweet, portrayal of a family coming to terms with its past and present.  She balances the reality of views towards individuals with disabilities with a theatricality that makes the production entertaining and enriching.  Her inclusion of scenes when the parents were young assists in providing needed background information and helps enhance the overall presentation.

The acting troupe is up to the challenge of handling the material with deft and aplomb.  Jamie Brewer, as Amy, an actress with Down’s Syndrome, gives a vigorous, persuasive performance.  She’s a wisecracking and confident woman forcefully declaring her independence.  Debra Monk gives Maggie a layered vulnerability and excitable personality.  She is not only coming to terms with her life, her father’s passing, but also with her mercurial relationship with her sister.   Mark Blum, as Jacob, is more reserved and a perfect counterpoint to Ms. Monk’s character.  Vanessa Aspillaga is direct and protective as Kathy.  For any family with a loved one in a Group Home setting, a person like Kathy is someone you would want in your child’s life.  Diane Davis, who plays the young mother, Sarah, is a bundle of mixed emotions as she grapples with her own self-worth and the life determining decision she felt compelled to make.  Josh McDermitt’s Bobby, the patriarch of the group, gives a believable performance as a man who doesn’t fully understand the magnitude and ramifications of what is happening around him. 

Director Scott Ellis brings a skillful hand to a sensitive storyline.  He allows the material to develop naturally, slowly unfolding to present a genuine, gratifying production.  There is a good pacing to the show as he adeptly switches between the past and present.

Amy and the Orphans, a provocative and worthwhile production that is authentic and moving.

No comments: