Christo Davids, directs Abduragman Adams, Christian Bennett and Stefan Erasmus, in Lyle Kessler's critically acclaimed, ORPHANS, currently onstage at the Baxter Golden Arrow Studio until 28 October 2023.
Although first staged in 1983, the themes of Lyle Kessler’s three hander remain universal and timeless as an exploration of the social impact of forgotten children and noxious masculinity in broken family structures. At the heart of it all is a character study of adults who grew up as orphans and struggle (as the products of abandonment in one form or another) to navigate the world with limited socialisation.
Kessler’s play in its original form explores the interaction of two orphan boys (one the easily angered and violent older Treat, and the other the seemingly simply-minded reclusive younger Philip) living in a run-down North Philadelphia house in America where Treat’s pick-pocketing ways brings into their life a relatable orphaned father figure with his own notorious past. The father figure, Harold, appears to have thug Chicago roots as hinted to in the way he dresses and his business "interests". The context of the dramatic framework created by Kessler is strongly influenced by the fact that even though he himself tried to escape Philly as the place of his birth, his plays seem to take him back there. In a 2013 interview, Kessler commented on the importance of this:
“As for Philadelphia, you know what it is like? Sink holes. You stand in the earth and it opens up and you’re sucked down. I’m never going to escape Philadelphia. I have to, in fact, embrace it because it’s there and it’s not going away. It’s who I am and where I came from. I can attempt to escape it by writing plays, but they end up there anyway, so what’s the point?”.
To give this recent South African staging at the Baxter Theatre a local flavour, it has been set in Woodstock (presumably still ‘80s or alike due to the dated absence of modern day electronics, ignoring the odd placement of a very current day plastic tub of Nola mayo) instead of ‘80s North Philly. Although that adds an extra layer of relatability for local audiences, it does come with its own pitfalls when it comes to staying true to the vision of the playwright. Kessler made it clear that his characters being from Philly stands central to his storytelling. That context shift from Philly to Woodstock (which has its own unique political history) should then have an impact on the characters in their development and perspectives. Arguably then, the choice of a placement shift runs the risk of diminishing some of the play’s intended impact.
This leaves one to question the intent of that choice: Why not stage a truly original South African play exploring the political and social impact of lost kids in ‘80s, ‘90s or even current day Woodstock instead of trying to fit an American play into that local mould? If establishing that relatable story angle is key to the staging why not explore it properly trough a home-grown play? That story could still be inspired by the themes explored by Kessler in ORPHANS, but just ring a bit truer.
The current staging however still communicates a moving perspective of the modest story penned by Kessler. Describing it as modest is not diminishing its power, in fact sometime the most modest of plays are the ones that stay with you as the plays that have the most heart, as those speak to the struggles of everyday individuals.
The heavily adorned set design of the Baxter Theatre staging by Leopoldt Senekal does go some way in helping with the adapted Woodstock setting, especially with the addition of prints of The Crying Boy by Giovanni Bragolin and Orchid on Stairs by Vladimir Tretchikoff, prints that were mass produced and hanging in many houses in ‘80s South Africa. The Crying Boy is perhaps a great visual representation of the sadness that clings to the character of Harold as he relates his days as an orphan in Chicago (in Paarl) where they referred to themselves as Dead End Boys, a distinguishing badge he carries into adulthood. It is the fact that he sees Dead End Boys characteristics in Treat that implores him to take Treat and Philip under his wing as a pseudo father figure. The play explores the influence of Harold’s presence on Treat and Philip’s personal development and their inter-relationship.
Abudragman Adams’ portrayal of Harold is beautifully refined. It speaks to years of experience in translating nuanced emotions to audiences in a way that does not call for any form of overacting to give weight to an important moment. Adams’ performance is enough reason to encourage you to go see ORPHANS. Stefan Erasmus, in the role of Philip, has a good onstage rapport with Adams. The unfolding dynamic between their characters has its own charm. Christian Bennet’s performance as Treat comes across as a bit one dimensional, with his emotional epiphany at the end feeling forced and overwrought. The physical action scenes between Bennet and Erasmus also seemed more soap opera in style than theatrically staged conflict (which admittedly is not an easy directorial feat to pull off and usually done with the aid of a fight choreographer).
Overall the Davids directed ORPHANS has a considered approach in the telling of the story. It strikes a balance between the dramatic tension and the humorous moments of relief. No doubt everyone will be able to identify with the sad reality of Dead End Boys walking amongst us due to South Africa’s current day social struggles of child headed households and the sad reality of the impact of gang violence on our youth and family structures.
You have until 28 October 2023 to see the South African staging of Kessler’s ORPHANS at the Baxter Theatre’s Golden Arrow Studio. Tickets are available for booking online through Webtickets.