Damned if I know whether Frederick Mead is a genius or the luckiest director in town.
I winced when casting was announced for Jonathan Mares’ production of Lyle Kessler’s Orphans. The oft-produced, award-winning drama (three showy roles, simple unit set) is about grown orphan brothers, practically feral: the older Treat (Martin Bradford), a violent control freak who makes their lousy living as a petty thief; the younger Phillip (David Williams), submissive and so childlike as to seem mentally challenged.
Out of domineering concern for his safety, Treat never permits Phillip to leave their squalid squat, although there’s ambiguous evidence to suggest that the naïf is conducting secret explorations of the outside world.
Their near incestuous relationship is upended when Treat impulsively kidnaps a businessman to hold for ransom. Harold (Silas Cooper) turns out to be a dangerous, and charismatic, Mafioso. Instead of killing them, or just leaving, after he coolly escapes his bonds, Harold – loaded with money, criminal street wisdom, and a relentless paternal impulse borne of his own status as an orphan – stays in the rathole, becoming the damaged boys’ surrogate father. Their balance of power destroyed by Harold’s tough love, Phillip blossoms, Treat implodes. And given all the violence in the air, it’s anyone’s guess who will make it to the final curtain alive.
Sounds unbelievable, right? It is. After the mid-‘80s Steppenwolf production that launched John Mahoney, Terry Kinney, and Kevin Anderson on to film careers, Orphans got revived by smaller Chicago troupes as frequently as Rocky Horror Show does here. (Every theater town has its go-to shows.) Even with good actors, productions of it tend to struggle with Orphans’ apparent status as a naturalistic slice-of-lowlife. It’s so not: magic realism at best, manipulative hoohaw at worst, with Harold in particular a Big Bad Daddy fantasy figure who could exist in no known universe. (He produces wads of cash, perfect gifts, home-cooked meals, and a gun the size of a Howitzer from his pockets like rabbits.) But by casting the African-American Bradford as Treat and the Caucasian Williams as Phillip, Mead makes what by all rights ought to be a fatally blithe screw-the-script mistake into the declaration that snaps Orphans’ thickest tether to pseudo-realism. “No way these two are brothers,” the audience decides within minutes. Freed of the need for us to suspend disbelief, the play floats into chamber-drama heavens, its lyrical speeches and symbolism-drenched confrontations as satisfyingly outré as a ‘30s crime drama rewritten by Noel Coward.
The show reaches its apotheosis of captivating absurdity when Treat relates for Harold his potentially lethal encounter on public transportation with “a black man…a big black man,” clearly written for a white actor and seemingly not rewritten in the slightest. Instead of making us squirm, the bravura passage – with the increasingly desperate Treat counterpointed by Harold’s hammering him with questions and Phillip first singing, then giddily dancing, to underscore his story and overload his attention – becomes the most highwire damn-the-torpedoes scene I’ve seen any actors execute since A Lie of the Mind. Treat faints, with the audience inclined to follow his lead.
I should call the production values rudimentary and leave it at that. Although I have no issue with ‘rudimentary’ and get why they happened, it really would be swell to have a door and a window that opened and closed without swaying in space. The strangely stained walls by scenic painter Simonette Berry provide what atmosphere there is. The costuming is unusually good. Otherwise the set is the typical storefront assemblage of cast-off furniture, the lighting a general wash only, and there is no sound design I can now recall. That last is actually kind of a pleasure: It’s been awhile since I’ve seen a show go house lights out, curtain open, stage lights up, without a bit of preshow lead-in.
Mead’s blocking is the most fluid I’ve seen him do. There’s real grace in the unforced, steadily changing stage picture (not easy, given the many monologues) that I wouldn’t have thought he had in him, especially after last year’s lead-footed Deathtrap. Mead tends to produce one classic a year from the shelf of Great American Homoerotic Post-Stonewall Plays…this is the best since his lauded production of The Boys in the Band.
Perhaps he took inspiration from his cast. I can’t tell you what a pleasure it is to see Cooper and Bradford in roles that take full advantage of their prodigious talent. Cooper, despite the engraved invitation to chew scenery that a big drunken monologue of an entrance constitutes, plays Harold with great restraint, relying on his gravitas (and mellifluous voice) to command the audience’s attention and the boys’ respect. Cooper knows understatement works best to make an extravagant character plausible and, more, that the arc of the story belongs to the brothers. Only in the moments after he wakes the next morning both unsurprised at being tied to a chair and apparently not hungover did I find him unpersuasive.
Bradford has to cover the widest tonal range, the wildest mood swings. It’s no easy feat to make Treat both ignorant and cunning, dangerous and vulnerable. Bradford reconciles it all within his coiled-spring intensity, physicalizing his character’s unstable mental state, poised to careen in some unpredictable direction at every moment.
And Williams? Astonishing. Where Bradford takes as his physical model a tightly wound spring, Williams reminds us of a small woodland creature, darting and watchful and sinuous. (It’s startling whenever he stands up straight.) The depth of Williams’ concentration on Phillip’s fragility makes Treat’s often cruel demands on him understandable, as the exhausted meanness of an overworked parent. As a bonus, once we’ve grown accustomed to the interpretation – we don’t see much high-style physical acting in this town – Phillip generates the lion’s share of the laughs. If you don’t count his small supporting role in American Theatre Project’s Freedom Summer, as I’m about to do, then David Williams is here making the debut of the year.