Orphans by Lyle Kessler

Where and when: Baxter Golden Arrow Studio, from October 11 to 28, 2023, at 8pm, with Saturday matinees at 3pm
Director and adaption into South African context: Christo Davids
Cast: Abduragman Adams, Christian Bennett and Stefan Erasmus
Age restriction: No under 13s
Booking: Webtickets www.webticket.co.za/baxtertheatre or at Pick n Pay Stores
Ticket prices:  R120-R180  
Marisa Steenkamp: Costume design
Franklin Steyn: Lighting design
Dean Balie: Orginal music
Leopold Senekel: Set design

Is it nature or nurture which defines us? If we receive “encouragement” and affirmation, do we have the capacity to change and transcend the cards that have been dealt to us in life? In Christo David’s brilliant adaption of Orphans, by American writer, Lyle Kessler, the answer to the above questions is a resounding “yes”.  It is a play which is sad and heart wrenching and which makes one cry in parts, but in this beautiful and stirring production, the tragedy shifts dramatically as two brothers connect emotionally and physically. They are able to shift out of a paradigm, a legacy of abuse and abandonment that has kept them tethered to each other, in pain, anger and despair.  It is a brilliant production- an outstanding adaption of an American play- transposed into a South African context – Woodstock, Cape Town. Abduragman Adams, Christian Bennett and Stefan Erasmus deliver exceptional nuanced performances. The shimmering design (set, costumes, music) has been articulated with care and grace. Orphans in South Africa 2023 is an astounding piece of theatre. Go and see this play and become immersed in the visceral power and impact of theatre on our psyche. The review carries narrative and plot spoilers, so if you do not want to know more, then read this when you have seen it but whatever you do, do not miss Orphans. That good? Yes. Orphans, adapted and directed by Christo Davids, in South Africa 2023, is a triumph of a production, a theatrical gem.

This production marks 40 years since the 1983 debut of Orphans in the USA. Christo Davids – South African star of stage and screen – has wanted to do this play for over a decade. The play is 40 year’s old (2023) and Christo Davids is celebrating his milestone 40 birthday, this year. So this production is not simply about putting on the award winning, celebrated Orphans. It is a play close to Davids’ heart. He is one of five brothers. He grew up in Cape Town. He knows about rupture and how hard it is for young men to navigate life. In South Africa, many young men are disadvantaged economically and emotionally. They deal with absent fathers and the perpetuation of generational abuse. In many quarters, it is frowned upon, as a man; to show emotion; to give and receive a hug. In Davids’ interpretation, Orphans is play which is a call-out to kindness, being human and alive and ultimately about making choices, to rise above the rut of one’s situation.

I am not familiar with the play, Orphans and googled it extensively. Most of the reviews of recent productions, give me the impression that the play is harrowing and gruelling. I braced myself. I am a huge fan of the work of Christo Davids- as an actor of stage and screen, director, writer and producer. I admire the actors. They work extensively in TV and film (they are big stars) and what an amazing opportunity to see them on stage.  I thought- “okay – it will be gruelling to sit through but it is an acclaimed play- you must be there- and be prepared for an ordeal”. Well, there is no ordeal in watching this production of Orphans. It is as I have said, sad and heart wrenching but Davids has distilled hope and healing from the tragedy. Watching this play is a like a balm; a comfort.

Many people have said to me-“oh no- cannot face another shattering play about the cycle of abuse and fatherless young men in this country.”  I did not feel “shattered”, after leaving the theatre. This play is underscored by pain, grief, abuse, fracture, sure but under Christo Davids; direction and his vital adaption (stunning use of South African vernacular), and his use of the brilliant script by Lyle Kessler, this is not a production which leaves one gutted. It is very funny – darkly funny. At the preview, people were shrieking – often in moments which are not funny and are very comfortable. In laughter- there is release. Davids deftly teases out the absurdity of the narrative and we chortle along and that is so needed as we watch this narrative unfold.

Lyle Kessler’s Orphans is anchored around two brothers. The mother and father are not in the picture. The older brother, Treat (Christian Bennett) is a violent career criminal, doing his best to keep his brother Phillip (Stefan Erasmus) safe in the family home. Phillip is on the spectrum- Asperger’s/autism- whatever you want to term it. In many productions abroad, the brothers are described as feral, cohabiting in a condemned house, barely holding on. In Davids’ production, the house is not a ruin. Leopold Senekel’s set design conjures up a home which is alluring and inviting.  Luminous lighting by Franklin Steyn, wraps each pieces of furniture with a glow and is reminiscent for me of Dutch interior paintings by Vermeer. We glimpse the streets of Woodstock, through the windows and door. It is a home- packed with treasured pieces. Sure, there are signs of neglect- paintings and photos are skew. There is damp. It is a house frozen in time – when the mom of the brothers – left her sons. Senekel’s set provides a nest for the two brothers – safe inside- from the world outside.

With good intentions, Treat, with his violence festering and boiling, does everything to keep his younger, vulnerable brother Phillip, safe. He tells Phillip that it is a bad world out there and he will get allergies from the air so and on. Treat perpetuates the cycle of abuse and power – learned from his father. Phillip eats noodles and Nola Mayonnaise and is glued to the TV-watching re-runs of nature programmes and Isabel Jones shows. (Isabel Jones was a British born, South African consumer rights celebrity. Her TV programme, Fair Deal was a hit. She did infomercials and radio shows and died in 2008.  In the Orphans, script by Lyle Kessler, the re-runs are of the American TV programme, The Price is Right– a game show- where contestants guess the prices of goods such as washing machines, with the opportunity to win cash and prizes. It appears that in 2023, the show is still airing).

In the home, with Phillip guzzling his noodles and watching telly and Treat swaggering in and out with menace, Harold (Abduragman Adams) arrives. I am not going to plot spoil. He inserts himself in the household and becomes the father figure to the brother giving them “encouragement,” He cleans the house. In the 2nd act, the photo frames are straightened. He smartens the brothers – dressing them properly. Fabulous wardrobe design by Marisa Steenkamp which mirrors the transformation of the brothers. Harold liberates Phillip from his locked in syndrome by literally providing him a map of Cape Town so that he can locate their house in Woodstock- and step outside and explore the world- no matter its dangers.  Through Harold’s mentorship and fathering, Phillip literally straightens up, stands tall – beyond the crouched creature he is at the start- hunched in front of the TV- hiding in the closet in a foetal position. Treat becomes smart and dapper in his new suit of armour.

The dynamics between the brothers is fraught as Harold becomes an unlikely father figure and has the capacity to obviate the tragedy of their young lives (maybe). It ends in a huddle of pain – in a scene which for me is reminiscent of the iconography of The Pietà (Italian “pity”, “compassion”) which has been used extensively in art as a theme. The Pietà construct, depicts Mary clasping the body of her son, Christ on her lap and is said to represent hope and faith in humankind. Michelangelo’s famous Renaissance era, Pietà (1498–1499) in the Vatican, appears to be the first iteration of the Pietà. In the final scene, in this production of Orphans, three men are cradling each other, nurturing each other. Ultimately, we are what we are because of our choices and actions – no matter outside forces -violence, hate – and social/economic/cultural/dogma constraints.

The performances by the actors are knockout- the simmering violence of Treat; the bafflement of Phillip. The brothers, Treat and Phillip are magic – in their interaction – with an astounding use of physical theatre as they embody the complexities of their lives and their histories. The enigmatic and beguiling Harold is the catalyst, trigger agent in this production. He is a “bad” person doing “good” and a medium for the brothers to find their way. Harold’s character charges the play with magical realism. Abduragman Adams (Harold), with his chocolatey voice is a wonder as he transitions before our eyes. Talking of chocolate, watch out for the scenes where Harold tutors Phillip about food. Lyle Kessler’s script is delicious in these scenes. Davids has retained the essence of the script and layered it, through the lens of Woodstock South Africa. I loved Orphans, by Lyle Kessler, directed and adapted by Christo Davids in Cape Town, October 2023. I encourage you to see this astounding production.

Home men: Abduragman Adams, Christian Bennett and Stefan Erasmus in Orphans, by American Lyle Kessler; adapted and directed by Christo Davids, Baxter Theatre, October 2023. Pic by by Fiona MacPherson.

✳ Images by Fiona MacPherson. Supplied.