When playwright Lindsey Ferrentino wrote Amy and the Orphans about her Down syndrome aunt Amy, she convincingly demonstrated that she didn’t need to write its fraternal twin, Andy and the Orphans. But the demonstration happened too slowly. Ferrentino and director Todd Haimes needed a second Down syndrome actor to play the title role at matinee performances when the show opened for the Roundabout Theatre Company in 2018.
Presumably, Ferrentino thought that pickin’s would be slim after finding Jamie Brewer at a New York fashion runway, the first DS person to participate in Fashion Week, through a talent agency that specialized in performers with disabilities. So the playwright didn’t specify what gender her second DS actor should be. Along came Eddie Barbanell to step onstage as the matinee understudy, and along came Andy and the Orphans, the custom-tailored male version of Ferrentino’s tribute to her Aunt Amy.
Five years later — and five years closer to Andy’s real age — Barbanell is here in Charlotte, wowing audiences at The Arts Factory in Three Bone Theatre’s production of Andy and the Orphans, which runs through Feb. 25. Meanwhile, Ferrentino has learned, through versions of her work staged in London and Spain, that you can reliably find DS actors to play DS people onstage anywhere; the real stumbling block for these performers is the lack of roles for them.
Three Bone Theatre was actually early to the Ferrentino party, bringing the playwright’s previous work, Ugly to the Bone, to Spirit Square’s Duke Energy Theater two years ago. It was another script that showed Ferrentino’s empathy with female castaways in our society and how they are treated. Then it was Jess, an Afghanistan War vet returning to her Florida home, disfigured and disabled physically while inwardly suffering from PTSD.
While the content of Amy/Andy is more autobiographical, the location moves away from the playwright’s native Florida to New York. Precise locations shift during the action, and Ferrentino is rather circumspect about where we are or when. Without the script in my hands, I guessed that at various times we were in Staten Island, New York, outside LaGuardia or Kennedy Airport, at a group home in Queens or Long Island, on the road, and — quite memorably — at a Burger King. Andy, his elder siblings and Kathy, the caretaker who must accompany Andy, are on a road trip to Dad’s funeral, past the end of the fabled Long Island Expressway (and Sunrise Highway afterwards) to Montauk, the eastern tip of New York.
Maggie and Jacob, when they aren’t bickering over whether their yearly meet-ups are Christmas or Chanukah visits, are worried over how they will break the news that Dad has died — and that Mom has already died a while ago. This is the right comedy varnish to apply to a story that has a rather horrific dramatic core. Likewise, being overdue on telling their DS little brother that Mom and Dad are dead is a rather innocuous patina to apply to the family trait that characterizes Andy’s sibs and parents, a shocking abdication of their responsibilities toward him.
As this shabby trait becomes more and more exposed, the sideshow dinginess of Chip Davis’ traffic-themed set design becomes more and more apt for this story. It’s hard to escape the conclusion that director Danielle Melendez lucked out when Susan Cherin and David Catenazzo showed up for auditions. Cherin is the kookier, more neurotic sib as Maggie, far more likely to be a fretful helicopter parent than her shambling brother. As Jacob, Catenazzo has the more Jewish name and delivers a more Jewish demeanor — compounding the comedy, since he’s the Bible-toting convert who celebrates Christmas.
It’s really hard for us to be disgusted with either Cherin or Catenazzo until Maggie and Jacob are shown why they should be deeply disgusted with themselves. That’s why this key moment is such a gut punch for us.
Barbanell is extraordinary, giving us all that Ferrentino wrote into Andy and more. As an actor myself, I marveled at his cue pickup and his timing. We don’t need to be in his presence long for us to believe how he and Brewer blew away the playwright’s expectations for what a DS actor can do, or that they were the first Off-Broadway cast members to go off-book. Nor was I surprised by the end of the evening to read that Barbanell had burst into Shakespearean monologues by Romeo, Julius Caesar, and Puck the first time he met up with Ferrentino at a roadside diner, turning his interview into an audition and a theatre event. Each performance was “word perfect” by the playwright’s account.
Tacitly, then, she has admitted that she might have filled out Amy/Andy’s role more amply if she had known, going in, the full capability of DS actors. Critics who have faulted Ferrentino for not fleshing out her title character and letting us get to know him better may have overlooked just how pioneering this script is. Getting buffeted by myopic critics was the price she had to pay.
The nice thing is, Ferrentino has been asked by Netflix to adapt and direct a film version of Amy and the Orphans. That will allow her to reframe her story knowing her DS actors’ capabilities beforehand. Both Brewer and Barbanell have been tapped to be in the remake, so it’s probable we’ll get first look inside Amy and Andy’s group home. Maybe Andy’s unseen girlfriend, Tina Turner, will get thrown overboard in favor of Amy!
Sarah Malloy and Nathan Morris are Sarah and Bobby — and the key reason why Ferrentino has moved her tale to the Staten Island vicinity. They are the parents of the title character, but it may take a while before audiences catch on. My wife Sue, who taught special needs children for decades, got it the second time Sarah and Bobby locked horns. It didn’t come together for me, merely a special needs child’s elder brother, until maybe a half hour later.
Even then, notwithstanding the fine work from Malloy and Morris, I wondered why the playwright felt these dead parents needed to be onstage, in the story. There was something unsavory about both of them, that I can say, before the big reveal. Then the Staten Island connect became crucial.
[Spoiler Alert: In the run-up to the upcoming Netflix film, it’s hard for me to predict whether the Willowbrook State School will remain a spoiler. Back in his day, Senator Robert F. Kennedy visited the facility. Not too long afterward, Geraldo Rivera dropped by with a TV crew, coming away with similar impressions. Decide for yourself by googling Willowbrook — or delaying that search — whether you wish to know about it before or after you see Andy and the Orphans. Will Netflix insist on showing us the place? Stay tuned.]
Finally, it must be said that Vanessa Robinson’s sensational Charlotte debut as Kathy has absolutely nothing to do with luck on Melendez’s part. She went way against script, where Kathy is described as Italian-American, in casting Andy’s pregnant social worker. With a down-to-earth quality that masks her admirable ability to tolerate all the Maggies and Jacobs she has dealt with over the years — and the Andys — Robinson shows us a different way to be “the walking embodiment of Long Island, New York.”
When they perform their big monologues, both Barbanell and Robinson hit it out of the park.
One of the things I had to ponder on our drive home was whether Ferrentino had been dealing from the bottom of the deck when she showed us how normal and everyday Maggie and Jacob were — not to mention Sarah and Bobby before them — in their interactions with Andy and each other. It’s only when you factor in how many hundreds and thousands of parents and siblings behaved the same way, for over four decades, that the monstrousness of such normality becomes clear.
Ferrentino is slowly, cautiously, and carefully cushioning us for a hard truth. All the time we’re thinking that we’re in on the big reveal Maggie and Jacob have in store for Andy, we are being set up with devastating circumspection.
The tables are turned suddenly. Jarringly.
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