Prior to attending a performance of Orphans by Philadelphia born playwright, Lyle Kessler I was fortunate to interview Andrew Henry Co-Artistic Director of the Old Fitz Theatre and currently starring in the Red Line Production’s presentation of this highly acclaimed theatre piece.
Orphans premiered in 1983 at the Matrix Theatre in Los Angles, was subsequently produced by Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company and was adapted for film in 1987.
Since then according to Kessler “the play has been done everywhere, from Japan to Iceland to Mexico to South America … it just boggles the mind. It’s amazing the evolution of the play and its reception in the world.”
I was very excited to uncover the reasons from Andrew for choosing the Play. According to him Orphans is one of the great underexposed plays in Sydney.
It hasn’t had a production here since 1988 but over the past few years has received an increase in attention due to it being performed as part of the Larry Moss Masterclass.
I became aware of the play in 2011 when studying at the School at Steppenwolf in Chicago. As a huge fan of Sheppard, Pinter and Mamet I knew I had stumbled across a gem that for me was an electric combination of the three.
I always find it desperately funny and ultimately devastating. It was a perfect fit for the Fitz so I couldn’t help but program it.”
I wanted to discover what attracted Andrew Henry to performing in Lyle Kessler’s play Orphans.
He was very forthcoming articulating “I don’t know what to say…I couldn’t help myself. It’s been on my mind for four years so I had to put myself to the test and see what those four years of thoughts festering about the role of Treat would amount to – a valuable contribution by being involved as an actor.”
Knowing Andrew Henry also has the role of Co-Artistic Director for the Old Fitz Theatre learning about some of his responsibilities in this vital theatrical role helped cement my understanding about the nature of delivering highly successful well-run productions in this small, intimate and quirky theatre.
Andre Hawkins replied “Sean Hawkins, Vanessa Wright and I have set out to collaborate far and wide. There is the obvious- programming a main stage season but in addition we are facilitating many late shows to open the venue up to as many artists as possible. In addition, the three of us are doing box office, buying props, and lots of other bits and bobs. It’s the best experience I have had in my life. Working with so many people I admire and my two best friends.”
Currently Andrew revealed to me how he has responded to the dual roles of Co-Artistic Director and Actor in Orphans. “Orphans has been strictly acting for me. The way we work is that Sean, Vanessa or I are responsible for one particular show.
So Vanessa has been flying the flag on this one, during the day I have been working on the next shows I am working on which are The House of Ramon Iglesia by Jose Rivera and Men by Brendan Cowell.”
The rehearsal process is fascinating and built the framework for this outstanding production and Andrew was generous in sharing his thoughts about rehearsals.
“Without doubt it is being subject to the beautiful vision of Anthony Gooley. He has arrived at each rehearsal with a clear and exciting vision and being a part of that has been magical….to steal your wording.”
Anthony Gooley’s direction of Orphans is grounded in clarity of personal artistic vision that is embedded in an astute understanding and empathy for the basic human need to be loved and cherished. Throughout the play the attributes of “encouragement” resonated with the truth that everyone needs to feel the touch of the human hand and the warmth of a loving heart
The play began with Phillip [Aaron Glenane] on stage perched on a wooden chest parallel to a closed window. He appeared caught in the world of childhood innocence as he was absorbed in the joy of blowing bubbles. Aaron Glenane’s sensitive portrayal of a complex character, whose goodness and intelligence needed to be nurtured and applauded, captured the suffering and humour of this needy young man.
As Phillip heard the approaching sounds of his brother Freak [Andrew Henry] returning from the outside world he panics, fanatically hiding his books under the cushions on the couch. The tension and fear created by the appearance of the menacing older brother sets the components of a co-dependent relationship that is grounded in physical and emotional abuse.
Andrew Henry’s role was extremely demanding and required a deep understanding of the complications of a character deprived of love and suffering the severe consequences of abandonment. It was obvious to observe what attracted him to the role.
Freak is the overprotective, dominating, insecure, controlling and cruel provider, while Phillip remains chained to the irresponsible world of dependence and subservience.
Phillip relates mimics and embellishes the variety of scenes and people he witnessed from the window during his isolated day. Treat recounts his daily criminal exploits and boasts when stealing “I had to cut him.”
On the following day Treat captured and kidnaped Gordon, who proudly claimed he grew up in an orphanage and he loves “dead end kids.” Gordon was explicit in his his description and tales about the sad and miserable life of orphans. However his survival techniques and street wise cunning originated from the hardships and cruelty of his formative years in an orphanage.
The tragedy of frightened orphans crying out in the night “mummy, mummy” spoke of the disconnected, lonely despair of children denied love and deprived of respect.
Power and control moved from the kidnap perpetrator Treat, to the victim Gordon. This seemingly effortless power shift was sympathetically arbitrated by Gordon’s genuine desire to make a difference in the lives of both brothers. Gordon simply won over the trust and affection of Phillip by offering him hope in the gentle movement of a caressing arm on his shoulder.
However reaching the troubled and damaged Treat was slower and more demanding to achieve. Lessons in self-control, patience and compassion continued and Gordon demonstrated the wisdom and love of a father. The cynicism insecurity and rage of Treat erupted in a very aggressive violent physical fight. However the outcome was a testament to the influence and changes that Gordon has orchestrated.
The ambiguity of Gordon’s personality was portrayed by Danny Adcock with the assurance of a seasoned actor. Beneath the calm, eloquent and cool persona I felt loneliness and forgiveness were impatient to be released and this was imparted in Danny’s character portrayal.
The redemptive and dramatic conclusion to the play was a potent reminder of the power of love and the need for self-esteem.
The importance of parental love cannot be diminished but this love can also come from non-biological parents.
Lyle Kessler has written a play that is both funny and heartbreaking but rings unmistakably with the clarity of universal truths.
The audience was rewarded by a fine production that exemplified the commitment of the New Team from Red Line Productions expressed once again by Andrew Henry “to be embarking on a journey that hopefully will excite every single storyteller in Sydney.”
Rose Niland, NSW Special Features, The Culture Concept Circle, 2015