Baby boomers are likely to feel the poignant truth of Amy and the Orphans more sharply than younger viewers of Lindsey Ferrentino’s admirable new play. Some boomers probably once shared — or will at least recognize, as the story unfolds — the societal blindness that the sixtyish orphans of the title eventually will discover about themselves. Let’s not suggest, however, that others will be left unmoved by this funny and thoughtful comedy-drama currently premiered by Roundabout Theater Company in its Off-Broadway space at the Laura Pels Theatre.
Maggie (Debra Monk) and Jacob (Mark Blum) are siblings who arrive in Long Island from their respective homes in Chicago and California, preparing to travel out to Montauk to bury their elderly father beside their mom. They plan to pick up their younger sister, Amy (Jamie Brewer), who has Down syndrome, from her group home in Queens, and to break the sad news on their ride along the Long Island Expressway. Unexpectedly joining them is Kathy (Vanessa Aspillaga), an aide at Amy’s residence, who is mandated by regulations to accompany Amy, a ward of the state, on the trip.
As the journey proceeds, it becomes evident that Maggie and Jacob still affectionately treat Amy as a child. Their patronizing demeanor contrasts with the reality that Amy is a feisty adult who holds down a job as a manager at a movie theater and maintains an active social life, complete with a boyfriend. Later, Kathy informs Maggie and Jacob that their cozy, if vague, recollections regarding Amy’s pleasant childhood spent within a state institution — their family would take Amy to the movies every few months — were deceptive. (Kathy’s very mention of the word “Willowbrook” was sufficient to cause an audible sigh among some spectators, who recognized the name of the former state facility on Staten Island where its special-needs residents, like Amy, were maltreated under miserable conditions.)
As Amy’s clueless siblings slowly recognize how her potential as an individual was limited by the social and even the medical attitudes of the Sixties, the playwright provides further insight by inserting several flashback scenes involving their parents, Sarah (Diane Davis) and Bobby (Josh McDermitt). The strain on their marriage from Amy’s recent birth has sent them to couples’ therapy, where they vainly struggle to figure out how to do the right thing by their daughter.
Amy and the Orphans may sound like a drag in summary, but Ferrentino renders most of her story in a remarkably light tone. While her geographical and descriptive observations suggest that Ferrentino, a native of Florida, has never gone further east on Long Island than Hempstead, the writer is savvy about building her characters. She cunningly inserts little traits shared by the parents and their offspring that credibly dovetail to touching effect. The bickering exchanges between Jacob, a born-again, uptight health nut, and Maggie, who is letting herself go to pot, are practically sitcom-ish in humor, while the hugely pregnant Kathy is an outspoken soul who drolly relates far too much information about her Italian-American life in honking outer-borough Noo Yawk accents. Amy happens to raise some laughs, too, both by her matter-of-fact manner and a habit of uttering famous lines from movies.
Running a brisk ninety minutes in length, this congenial telling of a remorseful story is smoothly paced by Scott Ellis, whose fleet staging is facilitated by designer Rachel Hauck’s understated sets. Monk and Blum are veterans who mine considerable laughter from out of their anxious characters just as expertly as they later depict Maggie and Jacob becoming ruefully aware of their misconceptions. Aspillaga lends her bluff Kathy a warm presence. Brewer, an actor who has Down syndrome and is known best for her roles in the American Horror Story FX series, skillfully conveys Amy’s commonsensical attitude and independent spirit.
Dedicating this play to her late aunt, Amy Jacobs, who had Down syndrome, Ferrentino notes that she “is missed for who she was and for who she could have been.” Amy and the Orphans proves to be an endearing new play that wisely reminds us of that all-important dictum: to treat others with as much respect and consideration as we’d like ourselves to be treated.