Orphans-A Haymaker to the Heart
I was fourteen when I read To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. It’s the first time I can really, REALLY remember reading a book, closing it and feeling a surprisingly sharp pang of loss. It was like I knew these people and, even weirder, like I couldn’t let them go (I was kind of an…imaginative…kid). I have experienced this singular feeling again since then, but rarely with something on stage-the suspension of disbelief is too difficult; you can’t lose yourself in a play the way you can in a novel. This time, though. This time, I did. When the lights went out and the actors bowed, I felt like I wanted to know these people. And I felt sad that I couldn’t. Orphans by Lyle Kessler, playing right now at Fells Point Corner Theatre, might not hit you in the guts as hard as it hit me, but I defy you to watch this thing and not walk out carrying it in some way. Phillip (David Shoemaker) and Treat (Eric Park) are brothers and, as the title, suggests, also orphans, motherless, “dead end kids”. They’re both little boys in big boys bodies, if Phillip a bit more literally. At a mental age of about ten, he’s an innocent who has trouble tying his shoes (think less Mice and Men and more Gilbert Grape) who spends his days watching old movies and looking out the rowhouse window at people he’ll never meet doing things he’ll never understand. Big brother Treat is an amateur thug whose petty crime keeps the household in Hellman’s mayonnaise. Treat’s not blessed with exceptional smarts, but he’s got instincts, and when Harold (Jeff Murray) drunkenly stumbles across his path one night in a sharp suit and shiny shoes, one of them pipes up and brightly suggests he might want to find out what’s in the rich guy’s briefcase. If Treat’s an amateur, Harold, as it turns out, is a pro. A career criminal looking for a place to lie low, he quickly sizes up the situation and deftly takes control, calling the shots and becoming parent-in-abstentia. Shoemaker, I gotta say, is exceptional. He manages a neat trick with an amazing physical presence where, though I couldn’t take my eyes off him, I was never distracted by any little bell ringing unauthentic-I bought Phillip’s collection of tics, grunts and ADDish energy (at one point he leaps over the couch in a way that Shoemaker makes look effortless and which would have left me in traction) COMPLETELY. And Park gives a fucking exquisite performance as a guy who is dangerous, all right, and even worse than you think-as the play corks along it becomes clear that it’s not his violent temper but his uncontrolled fear of abandonment that’s really putting the charge to Treat’s loose cannon. Murray’s “in olden tymes” ex-newspaper boy Harold -also sans parents-puts me in the mind of an expert salesman (I’ve got a grandpa who used to sell pressure cookers door-to-door to bored housewives, so I know of what I speak), the type who both genuinely cares for these little lost lambs and won’t hesitate to pull a gun on them if you gotta do what you gotta do. If Treat is the Father and Phillip the Son, Harold is the Holy Ghost of loneliness in this trio, a source of phantom comfort that goes as easily as it comes. I don’t want to make all this sound like high tragedy, however. Steve Goldklang, directing as tightly as usual, makes the most of comic moments that shoot across the stage like welcome golden threads. By the time we get to the final scene, though, I’ll warn ya- make sure you’re sitting next to someone you can hug. Oh, here’s another tip- right after you fix your face in the bathroom you’re gonna want to step outside to the left of the front doors. It’s the best place to get a cell phone signal. That’s going to come in handy when you immediately give your mom a call. You know, just because.
[I have two teensy, tiny quibbles with this production, and they’re down here in brackets so you know they’re not serious- the cuing and the music. Light cues, especially at the beginning of the show, were real, REAL off, leading to an awkwardly delayed first scene. Hopefully this was just opening weekend stuff and certainly nothing that twisted my panties but it was noticeable. And for my money, just cut the music, especially coming out of the show. We’re all having a moment. Blasting mid-eighties top forty is not necessary.]
Bottom line: Stunning. Stunning. Stunning. Heartbreaking. Stunning.
Running at Fells Point Corner Theatre until December 8th.
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