A Trip Down the L.I.E. Connects Three Estranged Siblings in Amy and the Orphans
Jamie Brewer, an actor with Down syndrome, stars in a new play by Lindsey Ferrentino.
There's a surprising falseness to Amy and the Orphans, a well-intentioned new family dramedy by Lindsey Ferrentino at the Laura Pels Theatre. The story of three siblings — one of whom has Down syndrome — on the road to their late father's home, the play is all about the strength it takes to recognize and embrace one's true self. Yet almost everything about the production, directed by Scott Ellis with as many zigzags as a car that missed the exit, feels disappointingly inauthentic.
Really, there are two very different plays at the heart of Amy and the Orphans. The first, set during the early '70s, concerns Sarah (Diane Davis) and Bobby (Josh McDermitt), a young couple on a retreat to deal with a life-changing decision and the marital problems that seem to have ensued. The second, ostensibly circa 2018, finds brother Jacob (Mark Blum) and sister Maggie (Debra Monk), reuniting to tell their estranged sister, Amy (Jamie Brewer), who lives in a group home because of her condition, that their parents have passed away.
With the added presence of Kathy (Vanessa Aspillaga), Amy's tough-talking caregiver, the three siblings embark on a road trip down the Long Island Expressway to their dad's house, where unexpected revelations about Sarah and Bobby's actions change the way Jacob and Maggie remember their parents.
Amy and the Orphans was written as a tribute to Ferrentino's aunt Amy, who was born during the era of American history where children with developmental disabilities like Down syndrome ("Mongolian idiocy," as the doctors called it then) were shunned by families and sent off to state-run institutions. For parents and children (whether they have the condition or not), the ramifications of an action like this are many. While Ferrentino slightly addresses the psychology behind the decision to give Amy (the character) up, as well as what happened thereafter, she hesitates before going the full mile. The consequences of this decision on the multiple perspectives she presents aren't given the due they deserve.
Instead, Ferrentino leans into the comedy of mismatched people in an uncomfortable situation who learn over time that the only person who has it all together is the one they didn't expect. But we've seen this story since time immemorial, and considering how deep Amy and the Orphans has the potential to be, her willingness to take the easy route is particularly disappointing. There's a much more stimulating play in here, though Ferrentino hasn't cracked the nut just yet.
Ellis seems to have taken his cues from the comedic aspects, and he directs this company to play the material as loud and fast as they can. While Davis and McDermitt eventually find the inner turmoil they need for their work to be believable, not a word that Blum and Monk utters rings true. Their performances fall so far into caricature that we have a hard time investing in their character arcs. Alejo Vietti's average American daywear costumes actually define these two characters better than the actors do, and we can't help but wonder why no one has reined the performances in.
It's not a total loss, though. There are two actors that keep us — and the play — going. Aspillaga is downright hysterical as Kathy, excellently capturing the character's shameless Noo Yawk City brio. More importantly, she has an affecting rapport with Brewer, for whom the play was written, and who really shines in her New York debut.
Brewer is thought to be the first actor with Down syndrome to play the lead in an off-Broadway or Broadway production (her male understudy, Edward Barbanell, plays the male version of the character, Andy, at certain performances). Absolutely wonderful in the title role, Brewer delivers a tough, brave performance that is deeply moving and from the heart. This is a huge opportunity for her, and she impressively seizes it.
Though Amy and the Orphans leaves something to be desired as a whole, hopefully theater artists and producers will recognize the ground Brewer and Ferrentino have broken and press on, creating more opportunities for actors with disabilities to have the moments in the sun they truly deserve.