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BWW Reviews: ORPHANS - An ethical journey of worth

L-R: Shian Denovan, Pat Moonie, and Gavin Williams

Orphans - they are children all alone. The very mention of the idea of an orphan compels images of the most devastating isolation and solitude in most adult minds. Dennis Kelly's Orphans, currently presented by Steam Productions and Broken Mirror Productions, draws on the constructs of solitude and isolation and takes them to a new level. Basing its story around themes of family and love, Orphans illustrates a tremendously dramatic tension that ultimately exposes those in a family unit to feelings of being companionless. Kelly's work effectively dramatizes both the understanding of isolation and the paths that can lead to it, depicting both in a forceful manner. The furtherOrphans progresses the more it becomes apparent that being on your own can be both your best and worst option.

Kelly's forthright play explores a range of contemporary social issues in a frank and forthright manner, with the direction of Douglas Montgomery drawing out the richness that can be gleaned from the ethical pondering that Kelly's script provokes. Orphans demonstrates how simply-staged theatre can really excel when the audience, by virtue of the structure and tone of the narrative, goes from being a passive recipient of a story to an actively engaged participant. Orphans is most effective in this regard since the material forces the audience to adopt the subjunctive mood of 'what if?' In forcing this engagement Orphans takes the audience on an ethically confronting journey that is made all the more real by its simple domestic setting. This is a story that could play out in any dining room in any suburb. This lack of contrived setting or circumstance makes it impossible for the audience to dismiss Orphans' messages simple theatrical platitudes.

Orphans is set in a dining room of a house, with the story commencing as Helen (Shian Denovan) and Danny (Gavin Williams) are about to sit down to a rare dinner as a couple, with their five year old son spending the evening with the grand parents. Family is thus established as the basis for the narrative progression and remains an integral part of the thematic development and cause for moral reflection. Helen and Danny's seemingly simple evening is soon turned on its head when Helen's brother Liam (Pat Moonie) unexpectedly arrives. From this moment the tension in the narrative is accelerated, since Liam is covered in blood and both Helen and Danny have questions. How should they react? After all, a family member is wounded and a man has been attacked. What initially seems a simple response to such a chain of events is inhibited by the layered complexity of the central characters that further unfolds the deeper the narrative progresses.

The contrast between the three central characters is so immense that it makes for some tremendously dramatic moments as the play unfolds. Denovan brings out a tremendously loyal and somewhat emotionally manipulative dimension in Helen that is central to the character shift in Danny between acts one and two. Had she not been so convincing in her display then the ultimate conclusion would not have been so believable. For Denovan's performance to work Danny must also be played in a certain manner, which Williams ultimately succeeds in doing. His depiction of the transition Danny undertakes is exemplified by the chilling performance towards the end of act two, as Danny grapples with his self-made plight. Similarly, Moonie's interpretation of Liam is no small reason why this play works so well. There is a definite edge - a seemingly incompatible mix of an insecure yet cold and calculative nature - that is evident in Moonies performance. Liam is a family member yet strangely an outsider. His character raises an increasing number of questions as the story progresses.

The consequence of the combined characterization and casting is that as the play unfolds you experience a confusing mix of feelings for Liam. Initial thoughts of compassion and genuine sorrow are surpassed by feelings of disgust, anger, and absolute repulsion. Helen and Danny are not exempt from such shifts in perception either, with each proving more than adept at manipulation, stupidity, emotional frailty, and blind submissiveness. And all of this is supposedly in the name of the family unit.

Orphans offers a dark reflection on the role of the family, as well as a commentary on shifting community attitudes, reminding viewers that opinions can easily be swayed by both language and proximity. Helen and Danny represent the ultimate influence in each of these two dimensions. When Liam first arrives they are opposed in how to handle the situation, with Helen displaying a natural loyalty to her brother Liam. Danny is more skeptical about the situation and somewhat more pragmatic. Each is alone in their view of how to handle the situation. While they ultimately do shift in their positions they are destined to never be fully reconciled. The inherent difficulty is that both of are arguing from the same premise - the importance of the family and loyalty - yet both of them view the ethical dilemma of what it means and how it is best attained from a very different perspective.

Serving to reinforce the idea of perspective that is central to reconciling Liam, Helen, and Danny's positions, a wonderfully simple staging design sees the audience perspective of the dining room change from act one to act two. The audience is forced to consider the narrative from a different perspective. Such thematic consistency between staging, narrative, and characterization is simply executed and effectively reinforced from start to finish in this production of Orphans. The simple stage rotation demonstrates the centrality of perspective to the overall narrative. It is an ongoing theme in the play, as each character is forced to reflect on their position. The result of such reflection is often horrifying. Each question that a character answers tends to leave you wishing the question had never been asked in the first place. As Helen and Danny are destined to discover, adopting a different perspective is never easy. It presents challenges in both the act of transition and the consequences of change.

Liam, Danny, and Helen are all motivated by family - the centrality of the family unit is the bond that unites the characters. Yet the dark writing of Kelly puts the family in a whole new light, affording an insight into how it can be used to manipulate and shape opinions and actions. In many ways Helen is depicted as a most competent master, with Danny rendered a submissive target of her emotional 'family values' themed manipulation. All three characters constantly opine to each other the virtues of the family unit, and how it is integral nature to their existence. The bitter irony is that each of them will ultimately be left alone as a result. Through their various actions each character is left in a solitary position. While they may still have each other in the physical form, what is doubtful is their ultimate ability to live with themselves and their deeds.

The chilling aspect of the plight of the characters is not so much the teleological dimension of their respective final outcomes. Rather, it is the deontological dimension of how such final positions came to be that is simultaneously most compelling and terrifying. The depicted paths provide cause for the examination of how family-based morals and values can be applied to achieve supposedly ideal outcomes. These utopic constructions of family and family values employed by the characters are ultimately proven to be manipulative. They lead people to act in ways that they would not normally consider. Embedded in this is the caution that a failure to reflect on the means can bring about an end that is certain to yield nothing but disaster. There is an ongoing need to look at things from a different perspective.

Reflection on Orphans leaves you wondering, in a somewhat subjunctive tone, how the story could have been so very different. Danny is probably the chief of the characters in this cause for reflection. Ostensibly motivated by the family unit, his shifting moral position from act one to act two provokes cause for subjunctive thought. It is the forced contemplation of such 'what if' questions that ultimately makes Orphans a rewarding theatrical and intellectual experience.

As Orphans concludes it is apparent that in an emotional sense Liam, Danny, and Helen are inordinately isolated from each other. Family ties may bind them, but that is all. As a result of a complex mix of twisted manipulation, fear, and a touch of harmful nostalgia, all three characters are destined to be isolated. Confronting them is an unenviable path towards metanoia where they will try and wash the collective blood from their hands. Without companion or kindred spirit for this journey they are, in effect, orphans.


WHEN: 6 August - 23 August
WHERE: Mechanics Institute, 270 Sydney Road, Brunswick
PRICE: $28 / $24 (plus $20 Tightarse Tuesdays)
FACEBOOK: Steam Productions Dennis Kelly's Orphans

IMAGES: Provided by Diana Wolfe, Wolfe Words PR

From This Author - Brett Considine