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Amy and the Orphans

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - March 1, 2018

Vanessa Aspillaga, Jamie Brewer, Debra Monk,
and Mark Blum
Photo by Joan Marcus

Lindsey Ferrentino's Amy and the Orphans, opening tonight at Roundabout's Laura Pels Theatre, is a smart and perceptive blend of a laugh-out-loud 'road trip' comedy and a serious examination of the well-intentioned but faulty and potentially harmful assumptions we make about individuals with disabilities.

A middle-aged sister and brother, Maggie (Debra Monk) and Jacob (Mark Blum), meet up at LaGuardia Airport, having flown in from their respective homes in different parts of the country. There are headed out to Montauk to bury their father, who died unexpectedly. On their way there, their plan is to reunite with their sister, Amy, who has Down Syndrome and who has spent her life in various state facilities and group homes.

Maggie and Jacob were raised with only a vague awareness of Amy in the background of their lives, someone their parents took them to dutifully visit when they were growing up. Now Mom and Dad are both gone, and the older siblings are uncertain as to how they will explain the loss to Amy or how to see to her continued care. In truth, the two of them are pretty uncertain about everything. Both are neurotic as can be, and their conversations are mostly displays of their quirks. It's probably all very serious to them, but the dialog is as eccentrically funny as anything you might hear in one of Christopher Durang's plays peopled with high-strung characters. Added to the mix is Kathy (Vanessa Aspillaga), Amy's effusive primary caregiver and chief protector at the group home where she is now living. Since the group home, and not Maggie or Jacob, is Amy's legal guardian, she will accompany them. And so, the quartet sets off in a rented car down the Long Island Expressway,

At the center of it all, Amy is the beating heart of the play. As played by Jamie Brewer, an actress with Down Syndrome herself, Amy may miss out on some of the details. But she is very aware of her situation and of how she was bounced around from place to place before winding up in her current and, fortunately, very happy home, When they stop off at a Burger King, Jacob decides it is time to try to explain to Amy about the loss of their parents. (Their mom died earlier, but neither Jacob nor Maggie had attempted to get in touch with Amy at the time). Jacob's spectacularly inane explanation, involving the use of soda straws and earnest metaphors about eternity, sets Maggie's eyes rolling and is one of the funniest moments of the play. Later, however, when they get to Long Island, and Maggie and Jacob finally reveal their plans for taking responsibility for Amy, they seem far more concerned with assuaging their own sense of guilt than with how they might benefit her.

The interplay among the four characters makes up the core of the play. But another important plot element takes us back in time to meet the siblings' parents, Sarah (Diane Davis) and Bobby (Josh McDermitt). We observe them as young, struggling parents of three children. Their scenes, well performed by the pair of actors, take place at a relationship seminar, where they have come in an effort to work out their marital problems. Their troubles are, as we might expect, accentuated by their inability to cope with their intellectually impaired daughter. These are important scenes that complement the main story by helping us to understand their decision to institutionalize Amy. While the playwright doesn't use this as an opportunity to throw around blame, we learn enough about Amy's time at the notorious Willowbrook State School on Staten Island to lend a real heft to the goings-on. (For more about the real Willowbrook, you might want to check out the documentary film, 'Unforgotten.')

Amy and the Orphans ends on an up note, with Amy appropriately having the last word to put a coda on this entertaining, provocative, wonderfully acted play, which has been masterfully directed by Scott Ellis. It is a deeply layered work that provides a sobering lesson on how we as a society have too often failed to provide for the needs of individuals with disabilities. In a program note, the playwright talks about how she worked closely with Roundabout to cast someone with Down Syndrome in the role of Amy, making sure, as well, that her understudy was also someone with Down Syndrome. In this case, the understudy is a male actor, and should he appear instead of Ms. Brewer, the character becomes 'Andy.' This is the kind of pre-production sensitivity that one hopes will be the starting place for casting any play that includes characters with disabilities.

Amy and the Orphans
Through April 22
Laura Pels Theatre in the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre, 111 West 46th Street
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