David Shoemaker, Eric Park and Jeff Murray in "Orphans" Photo Courtesy of Ken Stanek

David Shoemaker, Eric Park and Jeff Murray in “Orphans” Photo Courtesy of Ken Stanek


– Theatre Review by Rachel Wooley

When life’s circumstances leave someone orphaned, how long does the term “orphan” apply? Does a person outgrow the label once they reach adulthood? How do they get past the hole that the absence of a loving and supportive parent leaves in their lives?

In Orphans, now playing at the Fells Point Corner Theatre, all three of the play’s characters grapple with this last question. Treat and his younger brother Phillip live together in the old family row house. Their father has abandoned them and their mother has died. They survive on a diet of Starkist tuna and each brother deals with the ramifications of their family’s tragedy a little differently. Phillip, who is played with incredible skill and delicacy by David Shoemaker is essentially a shut-in, hindered in part by his nervous tics. Much of Phillip’s reclusiveness is self-induced, but his older brother, Treat (Eric Park), makes sure Phillip remembers that the outside world is a hostile place. In his misguided attempts to protect his younger brother, Treat encourages Phillip’s behavior and even refuses to let him learn the alphabet or how to tie his shoes.

But Treat can’t be home to watch Phillip all the time. He is the breadwinner of the family, making a living through petty theft. When Treat returns home and proudly shows off his collection of stolen jewelry, watches, and wallets, Phillip is uninterested in the loot. The curious younger brother prefers to hear about the people Treat has encountered outside.

The FPCT crew has created an incredibly detailed set to accompany the show. Throughout the messy row house where the play takes place, a few of Phillip and Treat’s mother’s things remain, including one red stiletto that Phillip harbors obsessively. Treat, meanwhile, threatens to discard these items. They “ain’t doing nobody any good,” he says, forcing Phillip to throw the partner-less shoe out the window. Phillip is taunted by the shoe’s presence on the lawn, however, and can’t resist retrieving the memento of his mother.

The situation becomes more complicated for the brothers when Treat decides to give up his career of hold-ups and jewelry theft in order to take on something more lucrative: kidnapping. Enter Harold (Jeff Murray), his first victim.

David Shoemaker as "Phillip" and Eric Park as "Treat" in "Orphans." Photo Courtesy of Ken Stanek

David Shoemaker as “Phillip” and Eric Park as “Treat” in “Orphans.” Photo Courtesy of Ken Stanek

Things don’t go as planned. When Treat phones Harold’s office to demand ransom, nobody believes that Harold has been kidnapped. In fact, nobody seems to care what happens to him. Meanwhile, Harold worms his way out of his poorly-tied ropes and befriends Phillip, who’s supposed to be watching him.

Once freed, Harold considers the desperation of his captors and decides not to leave. Instead of viewing Treat and Phillip as villains, Harold sympathizes with the sad state of the two abandoned boys, who are clearly in need of a father figure. Harold, who was an orphan himself, is obsessed with caring for what he calls the “Dead-End Kids.” He quickly sets Treat up with a job and a salary that’s great even by today’s standards (the play was written in 1983).

Within two weeks, change is evident. The boys’ house is clean, and cans of Starkist tuna have been replaced with Harold’s homemade meals. Harold is adept at  approaching each of the boys individually because he sees himself reflected in each of their personalities. To coax Philip out of his shell, Harold buys him a pair of loafers without laces. He also circles their home on a map of Northern Philadelphia to ease Phillip’s worries about getting lost should he finally go outside.

Treat, however, is more complicated. New clothes and the promise of money and women entice him, but Treat’s tough persona doesn’t leave much room for Harold’s emotional encouragement.Treat’s attempts to overcome his rage (with Harold’s help) leave him struggling and confused. Complicating matters, Treat senses Phillip’s growing allegiance to Harold and feels displaced. “Don’t I always take care of you?” he demands of Phillip.

Jeff Murray as "Harold," Eric Park as "Treat" in Orphans, Photo Courtesy of Ken Stanek

Jeff Murray as “Harold,” Eric Park as “Treat” in Orphans, Photo Courtesy of Ken Stanek

Harold, meanwhile, has his own problems. Aside from loneliness, he’s haunted by a dark past, and some shady business dealings he left in Chicago. Nevertheless, Harold (perhaps owing to Murray’s skillful interpretation of the role) is somehow always genial with the brothers, even when he’s waving a gun in Treat’s face.

This story, though full of beautiful moments, can only end tragically. Both the brothers’ and Harold’s lives are irrevocably changed in the course of the show, and Director Steve Goldklang has skillfully woven their performances together, arriving at an incredibly moving conclusion.

The show is gritty, but moments of humor layer and accent the personalities of the three characters, deepening their relationships. The contrast of intense confrontational scenes with lighthearted and tender moments keeps audiences engaged in the trio’s emotional journey until the bitter end. Audiences will appreciate the characters’ explorations of what it means to be family and the intricate and unexpected bonds that can form between human beings.

Orphans is showing at 8:00pm Fridays and Saturdays and 2:00pm on Sundays. There are also two Thursday evening shows, November 14 and 21, also at 8:00pm.

Post Photo Courtesy of Ken Stanek