Maggie (Debra Monk) from Chicago and Jacob (Mark Blum) from California have flown across the country to deal with the death of their father at his home on Long Island. The wrinkle is that they have to notify their sister Amy, a person with Down syndrome living in a group home in Queens, that their father has died suddenly. What makes it more difficult is that they have only been seeing Amy once a year as adults and have not yet told her that their mother died recently as they expected to do it jointly with their father but now that is too late.
Meeting in LaGuardia Airport, Maggie and Jacob have a great deal to catch up with: she is recently divorced and he has become a born again Christian and health fanatic. However, it is the preparations for the funeral and telling Amy about their father that worries them the most. As created by Ferrentino, Maggie and Jacob are sit-com characters caught up a tragicomedy. Both of them are epic complainers and neurotics and do not seem to act their age. In their late fifties/early sixties, Maggie moans that “We are orphans now” and can’t believe that Jacob is wearing braces on his teeth for the first time in his life. For a third of its short running time, Amy and the Orphans works on the level of farce.
Their first intimation that they do not know Amy very well is when her talkative aide Kathy informs them that she is a ward of the state, not in their care, and that she works as a manager of a movie theater, neither of which piece of information sinks in right away. They do not recall that Amy speaks in movie quotes or that she has a very wry sense of humor, aside from taking most things literally. On their road trip to their father’s residence, they are also unnerved to discover that Kathy is required to travel with them by state law. Remembering Amy from when they were children, they have brought her balloons but Amy is now an adult woman, with a job, a boyfriend and a life.
Although there is a great deal of humor on the trip, the best parts of the play are the poignant ones like when Kathy reveals to Maggie and Jacob what Amy’s childhood in a state-run facility was really like and when out of guilt both of them offer to have her live with them across the country and away from her new family. Eventually they have to come to terms with their parents’ decision to put Amy in care as a baby.
The play also has scenes of thirtyish Sarah and Bobby in couple’s therapy years earlier trying to cope with a problem that is threatening to sink their marriage. Ultimately, we realize that we are seeing Maggie, Jacob and Amy’s parents trying to deal with their having been told that they have a child with Down syndrome at a time when the medical community had no idea of what such people were capable.
Casting of Brewer (best known for her several roles on American Horror Story), an individual with Down syndrome, is a real coup as she doesn’t have to be inventing a role she knows intimately. Her feistiness, timing and personality make Amy a three dimensional character from the time we first meet her. (A program note tells us that her understudy is another individual with Down syndrome, Edward Barbanell and when he plays the part the play is known as Andy and the Orphans in a rewritten version.) Another note reveals that Ferrentino’s heroine is based on her Aunt Amy who grew up with Down syndrome when the medical community had no idea how to deal with it except to institutionalize such people rather than to give them training and support. The play is a fitting tribute to Ferrentino’s aunt who the playwright never got to know as much as she would have liked.
As the quarreling siblings, Monk and Blum, two Broadway veterans, are outclassed by Brewer, but then their roles are stereotypes and hers isn’t. They do as much with their roles as the writing allows, getting all their laughs and revealing Maggie and Jacob’s lack of real knowledge about their sister’s past life. Diane Davis and Josh McDermitt (Dr. Eugene Porter on The Walking Dead) have better roles as the seemingly mismatched couple, and are more believable as a couple who have come to a crisis in their relationship. As Kathy, Amy’s loquacious, verbose and very pregnant Italian-American aide with a decidedly New York accent, Vanessa Aspillaga is delightful as she tells anecdotes which have hidden messages to Maggie and Jacob.
As directed by Scott Ellis, Amy and the Orphans seesaws from comedy to tragedy. This may have been felt necessary to sugarcoat the pill of reality that comes about in the play’s last third. The several settings by Rachel Hauck are serviceable but lack atmosphere. However, they allow for quick transitions between the scenes in this on-the-road play. Alejo Vietti is more successful with the costumes that immediately define and characterize the people of the play. John Gromada’s music and sound design punctuates each of the new scenes with its upbeat flourishes.
In presenting persons with Down syndrome and how their families deal with them, Lindsey Ferrentino’s Amy and the Orphans puts on stage a topic usually avoided by our theater. While the initial comic, vaudeville type scenes belie the serious intent of the play, it eventually packs quite a wallop as it gets to its real message: Down syndrome individuals are capable of being independent and productive members of society if they are given care and education in their formative years. In making her New York stage debut, talented actress Jamie Brewer leads the way for other actors to follow.
Amy and the Orphans (through April 22, 2018)
Roundabout Theatre Company
Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre, Laura Pels Theatre, 111 W. 46th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-719-1300 or visit http://www.roundabouttheatre.org
Running time: one hour and 30 minutes with no intermission