Amy and the Orphans by Linsey Ferrentino
At the Laura Pels Roundabout Theatre on 46th Street
BS Rating: C+
Show-Score Rating: 70
“Amy and the Orphans” is a very entertaining play. And that’s something of an accomplishment for a play about how a family – mother, father, and siblings – deal with a daughter with Down’s syndrome. However, it is the playwright’s desire to entertain that makes this 90-minute play less than satisfying.
The show opens with a funny and exasperating scene between the mother and father shortly after the birth of their disabled child. They are in the waiting area for an office that has something to do with their decision on how to care for their new daughter. There is a hint that the two parents have different opinions on what they should do next, but that is not the focus of this scene. Instead, the wife insists on involving her husband in a “truthfulness exercise” that does not permit discussion of their current problem, i.e., shall we care for the child at home as part of the family or institutionalize her. Yes, avoidance is probably a major factor in a couple’s efforts to deal with such an unexpected challenge. But this humorous battle over an exercise never reveals anything about their very real conflict: how do we deal with our new born daughter, Amy? Instead, the audience is entertained (and diverted from the issue at hand) by the very funny machinations the couple go through around the truthfulness exercise.
Next, we meet the Amy’s brother and sister, 50 years later, in an airport terminal, planning on picking up Amy from her institutional care center to attend their father’s funeral. Once again, this scene turns into an entertaining diversion as the two siblings argue over their plans for the father’s funeral, how they will break the news about their parents’ deaths to Amy (they never told her the mother had died some time ago), and the different directions each of their lives have taken. And once again, the laughs created by a classic brother and sister conflict camouflages the absence of the real issues underlying this play’s reason for being. Some details are revealed about the way the family dealt with the institutionalization of Amy over the years. But we are left wondering what exactly these people feel about their treatment of their sister, their responsibilities for that treatment, and the impact that treatment had on them and their sister.
Before we actually meet Amy, we are introduced to Kathy, her loud-mouthed, opinionated, but very faithful professional caretaker from Amy’s current institutional residence. Kathy becomes the comic foil to virtually anything the brother and sister say. All of the siblings’ plans for this visit (and the future) are uprooted by regulations related to Amy’s commitment to the care center, delivered by Kathy with a sort of “gotcha” delight. The impact of those regulations is one of the rare times the play deals directly with the choices made for Amy by others and the way those decisions have enriched and restrained her life. It’s not inappropriate to reveal these facts through humor; that is certainly one of the effective techniques used by our finest playwrights. But Kathy’s waggish refutation of Amy’s siblings becomes more like a farce than a meaningful articulation of reasons her continued institutionalization is the best future for Amy.
The production at Roundabout’s Laura Pels Theatre is stylish and well-acted. Roundabout commissioned the play and wisely agreed to one of the playwright’s demands: the actor playing Amy should have Downs syndrome. Jamie Brewer meets the playwright’s demand and gives an engaging and revealing performance. For matinees and as standby, Edward Barbanell, a male actor with Downs syndrome, performs the sibling with a script adapted by the playwright. Debra Monk and Mark Blum are totally credible as the sister and brother who went down different paths in their lives and struggle to find some points of connection with each other and with Amy. Diane Davis and Josh McDermitt, as the young mother and father, do a fine job of making their game playing an entertaining, and at times revealing, look at their relationship. Vanessa Aspillaga takes full advantage of the broad writing of her care-taker role, Kathy. Scott Ellis’ brings his usual skills to the staging. He clearly saw the opportunity for humor and exploited it – any other interpretation would have been a violation of the playwright’s writing.
Lindsey Ferretino is a skilled playwright. She carefully weaves the details about each character into each part of the play – what we learn about the father and the mother is verified in the scenes with the son and the daughter. She successfully shifts from the past to present and back again. And she manages to reveal much about each of the characters in this short drama. But she apparently wants to win her audience with humor more than she appears to want to inform or challenge them. There are certainly worse things than an entertaining 90 minutes, but there was so much more potential in this subject matter.