by Margret Echeverria
End your struggle as you comb through reviews trying to decide where to take your friends from your home town to the theatre in New York. Get your tickets now for the limited run of Amy and the Orphans by Lindsey Ferrentino directed by Scott Ellis at the The Laura Pels Theatre presented by the Roundabout Theatre Company. This show is a perfect collaboration of casting, script and directing. Choose this one and your friends will call you a star, too.
Speaking of home, do you remember the day you discovered your parents were people and not gods? One day, one of my five parents – we were a modern family – approached another about how to play the other side of a tape in the car tape player. This parent could not figure it out because the angle at which the tape was inserted into the dash just blocked all logic in the brain for turning it over to play the other side. The other parent demonstrated holding the tape flat, flipping it end to end the long way and instantly eliminated the confusion. I thought, Holy Smokes, these people don’t know everything and they make mistakes.
It is the ‘70’s when we meet parents Sarah (Diane Davis) and Bobby (Josh McDermitt) at some kind of “Marriage Encounter” retreat meant to save their marriage. They are doing assigned homework of speaking facts at one another in turns in an empty hotel conference room. Ellis has directed the listening and responding in this scene so that it hums with fresh moments that are very relatable as the underbellies of these characters are exposed. Someone has definitely come between them, but it is not a third party adult homewrecker, it is their own third born child, who has Downs Syndrome. Davis is beautiful as an exhausted mother with an irresistible upturned nose coming to terms with her limitations in the day to day struggles of parenting her daughter. McDermitt is the father who is literally eating his grief over bringing a special needs child in to the world. His new belly fat is an annoyance to his wife. He taunts her with it, trying to make her laugh. She asks to be held and then pushes him away when he reaches for her. The facts reveal that love still exists between them, but if they can’t find outside support for their family, this love will not be enough to keep it together. A decision is made to institutionalize their child.
Cut to many years later when Sarah has recently passed away and Bobby has just followed. The couple’s first born, Jacob (Mark Blum), and second born, Maggie (Debra Monk), have flown into LaGuardia from California and Chicago to make arrangements and to inform their little sister Amy (Jamie Brewer), who is currently living in an institution in Queens, that they are now without both parents. This is when it all gets real. You might expect a real downer experience, but Ferrentino brings the absurdity of life’s uncontrollable circumstances right to the forefront giving us lots of reasons to laugh at our human conditions. Jacob is a control freak who has run as far away as he can from Long Island, eating his feelings – he is a juice junkie – and even his Jewish heritage. Blum fidgets, sneaks the Jesus and juice into philosophical ramblings involving drinking straws as representations of time. He also frets about traffic on the Long Island Expressway pulling back just shy of hysteria. Monk is clearly a confident actress as she gives Blum plenty of room to play on the stage. She gets comfort from a purse full of snacks and speaks her truth about how terribly lonely she is since her marriage fell apart. I loved how Monk translates Maggie’s loneliness into hunger for experience; each line she utters is enveloped in a subtle invitation to relate to her and she cautiously reaches for the other characters on the stage often getting rejected.
Amy comes with a New York State assigned companion on the journey back to the homestead in Montauk from Queens. This state employee, Kathy (Vanessa Aspillaga), clearly grew up in a culture quite different from that of Jacob and Maggie. Aspillaga is delicious to watch with boundless energy presenting a character like the lady who talked endlessly to you on your last flight from Honolulu to Denver – a miserable experience at the time, but a screaming crowd pleaser when you imitate her at parties. Kathy does not withhold opinions or personal angst nor suppress them with eating; rather, all these experiences are expressed immediately upon occurring to her for anyone’s full enjoyment . . . or stark enlightenment. It is Kathy who reveals that Sarah and Bobby placed Amy at the infamous Willowbrook Institution way back in the day. Jacob and Maggie now add to their privileged sibling guilt the thought of possible complicity by their own parents. This is wonderful writing by Ferrentino because the sting of this information is allowed to linger in the air. It is not resolved quickly or even completely. Was a blind eye turned or was this family kept in the dark by the State of New York? We are all haunted in our quiet hours over something in our past for which we have not yet taken full responsibility. This play doesn’t tell you to examine yourself, but you will. It also allows for forgiveness and soothes us with long chuckles about how bonkers we all really are.
Jamie Brewer could have given us a one note Amy. Her language skips small words like participles or conjunctions and her vocabulary lives within narrow boundaries. But Brewer is as loaded as a freshly prepared balloon from Party City, which Amy loves. She is bright and fun, but projects the danger of busting open and devastating her siblings at any time. Brewer is powerful and will not be dominated just because she has Downs Syndrome. Amy escapes in movies, lines from which she quotes perfectly, but she is not absent from her now very good life nor, I think, from her past. I say, I think, because Ferrentino’s writing reflects reality; we cannot be sure about the resolution of Amy’s painful past and we will have to live with it.
Amy and the Orphans is my favorite kind of theatre. Something awful happens and somehow the characters find strength to reach out to one another and the courage to find joy again. The house fills with laughter over and over and we walk out feeling a little better. Truly lovely.
Roundabout Theatre Company presents Amy and the Orphans by Lindsey Ferrentino at Laura Pels Theatre Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre. Directed by Scott Ellis.
WITH: Diane Davis (Sarah), Josh McDermitt (Bobby), Debra Monk (Maggie), Mark Blum (Jacob), Vanessa Aspillaga (Kathy), Jamie Brewer (Amy) or Edward Barbanell (Andy).
Set Designer, Rachel Hauck; Costume Designer, Alejo Vietti; Lighting Designer, Kenneth Posner; Sound and Original Compositions, John Gromada; Vocal Coach, Liz Hayes; Production Stage Manager, Davin De Santis; Assistant Stage Manager, Raynelle Wright.
A limited run through April 22, 2018. Run time: 90 minutes; no intermission. The Laura Pels Theatre, 111 West 46th Street, New York, NY, 10036 | Ticket Services: 212.719.1300 TICKETS