The pioneering primatologist Jane Goodall was perhaps the first in her field to recognize the depth of chimpanzee intelligence. Her fieldwork in Gombe, Tanzania documented for the first time the complex social and personal lives of unique individual chimps who existed within a complex and negotiated social order. Chimpanzees were found to be deeply emotional and capable of both ongoing learning and empathy. They experienced pride and anger, rejection and forgiveness. She concluded that chimpanzees formed “close, supportive affectionate bonds between family members and clans…” which persisted throughout the lifespan.
What happens to us without close, supportive affectionate bonds? What part of ourselves is lost? Can it be recovered? These questions are at the heart of Lyle Kessler’s rivetting play Orphans (1983) on now at the Old Fitz.
In a squalid Philadelphia Row House two abandoned boys, the belligerent Treat and terrified Philip, have barely survived their adolescence. Their lives are abject, desperate and constrained. When Treat kidnaps a drunk businessman from the city he imagines a blubbering and submissive victim. Instead his abductee is a trojan horse. Harold, himself an orphan, is a colossus of energy and good will with nothing but “encouragement” for the boys. He has in fact sought them out. His escape appears inevitable, but rather than flee the house he takes control of their faltering lives. His charm, wisdom, and humor (almost Dionysian) transforms all. His motives remain mysterious.
Directed by Anthony Gooley this is a compassionate and punchy production of an American classic. Danny Adcock, Aaron Glenane & Andrew Henry are solid as the trio of duelling orphans with admirable, if not always perfect, Philadelphia accents. Their commitment to a very challenging script is absolute and I found it impossible not to fall under the play’s spell. At one point in the second act it felt, for me, like being there.
The play moves shiftlessly between the realism of Pinter (the mould on the walls and dirty cups) into dark humor and high drama. Orphans has been called a rare work of North American Magic Realism for the way in which the unlikely, the impossible, serves to illumine something real and overlooked. It is equally tragic, comic, and absurd. This is a powerful and insightful play done with energy and force.
“Orphos" is from the Greek orphanos meaning “fatherless”, literally “deprived” from orphos “bereft”. To be an orphan in Australia is thankfully a rarity. It might be hard for most of us to imagine the consequences of losing our first, and perhaps deepest source of love before we have even come to know it. We may never truly understand just how fundamental the need for love, encouragement, and care truly is. Perhaps only those who have done without can fathom its value. It is in a way everything that makes us truly human (or even chimpanzee). That is why the Greeks implicitly connected the impulse to create art with sorrow and loss. Orpheus (“the bereft”) followed the nymph Eurydice into the underworld demanding her return to the land of the living. His failure still resonates in all our art, no less in this great play so well done. It is the sorrow of the living for what they have lost and what they may yet still lose. We are all orphans in one way or another. You should see this play.
Red Line Productions presents
by Lyle Kessler
Director Anthony Gooley
Venue: Old Fitzroy Theatre, 129 Dowling Street (Corner Cathedral Street), Woolloomooloo
Dates: 14 April – 9 May 2015
Tickets: $32 Adult, $27 Concession, $22 Previews and Cheap Tuesday