Orphans, by Lyle Kessler | Directed by Anthony Gooley

Redline Productions | Old Fitz Theatre, Woolloomooloo, Sydney | Until 9 May

Orphans, written in 1983, is Lyle Kessler’s best-known play. It tells the story of two adult brothers orphaned in childhood and living together in North Philadelphia in relative squalor. Their mother died when they were children and their father abandoned them. Treat (Andrew Henry), the elder brother, provides for Phillip (Aaron Glenane), his agoraphobic and socially dependent sibling, through ill-gotten gains — namely theft at knife point. Phillip never leaves the house, imprisoned as he is by his total dependency on Treat.

The everyday patterns of life inside the house alter radically one night when Treat brings home Harold (Danny Adcock), an intoxicated, middle-aged and, to all appearances, Chicago businessman — also an orphan. When Harold passes out Treat ties him up and steals his briefcase.

But Harold does a Houdini and escapes the ropes. Needing somewhere to hide and his paternal buttons pressed, he moves in and adopts the role of mentor and guardian to Phillip. Conversely he becomes a Fagin-like figure to the now sharply suited Treat, as he teaches him the finer points of extortion.

Thus begins a drama of inter-dependency and co-dependency. Hybrid in style, Anthony Gooley’s deft direction steadily manoeuvres through the kaleidoscope of dramatic styles, for the most part avoiding a drift into melodrama.

All three performances are excellent. Andrew Henry as Treat, a possible psychopath, delivers a controlled — except when he totally loses it — fuming performance, and establishes just the right level of menace. His is a powerfully physical performance as is Aaron Glenane’s portrayal of Phillip, in contrast, a fragile soul soaring high on the autistic spectrum. Glenane delivers a superbly judged and executed performance resulting in a sensitive and intelligent portrayal of childlike innocence that was deeply moving.

Danny Adcock completes the trio. He is believable in a role that at times appears dated but his commanding stage presence and skilful expertise ultimately convince.

These three magnificent performances dominate the tiny stage, yet Gooley’s astute direction ensures the balance is never broken — a difficult feat in such an intimate space.  However, Anna Gardiner’s functional stage design capitalises on what room there is and provides many exits and entrances as well as a dusty, decaying and grungy interior, which, like its inhabitants, struggles for survival.

In many ways this is an old-fashioned tale but there is enough unpredictability and emotional appeal to transition the decades and deliver thoughtful theatre. Worth a look.

Danny Adcock.