BWW Reviews: Wrenching Production of ORPHANS Ignites Mad Horse Theater

The tiny Mad Horse Theater in South Portland, Maine, has proved once again that it is capable of and committed to producing provocative, exciting, even difficult plays and doing just that with consummate style! Its latest endeavor, a gut-wrenching production of Lyle Kessler's 1983 Drama League Award-winning play, Orphans, is the most recent case in point.

The gritty and gripping three-character-drama set in a North Philadelphia row house tells the story of two orphaned brothers who kidnap another orphan, Harold, a Chicago gangster, who through his wits and compassion turns the tables to become the boys' surrogate father - until his past catches up to him. The relationships among the three men are fraught with anger, loss, repressed yearning, and a sometimes touching innocence as they search for what Harold calls "encouragement" and a human connection. With its fascinating reversal, the conclusion of the play - though it comes at the price of violence and bloodshed - is not without its healing.

Christopher Horton directs this explosive drama with a keen sense for its mounting tensions and a flair for its verbal and physical acrobatics. He probes the psychology of the characters, exposing their vulnerabilities with compassion, and he does not shy away from either the ugliness or the immense tenderness present in Kessler's work. If there is one tiny quibble, it might be that none of the actors assume the street accents of either North Philadelphia or Chicago, though this may be a conscious directorial choice.

Horton is blessed with an extraordinary trio of actors. As Harold, the gangster who "adopts" the boys, Mike Kimball is a powerhouse of manipulative energy - one who erupts in moments of fury, but also of wisdom and empathy. From his drunken entrance to his demise, he is the ringmaster of the drama, and Kimball pulls out all the stops in a virtuoso performance.

Nathan Speckman makes older brother Treat a ticking time bomb - desperately injured by his loveless past and hopelessly consumed by his rage. He wears his anger as armor against his own inner hurt, as he reflexively inflicts pain on others. Steadman paces the role brilliantly, keeping the audience on the edge of their seats with his manically mercurial mood swings. His collapse at the end is truly moving.

No less wondrous is Dylan Chestnutt, who plays Treat's slightly retarded younger brother, Philip. Chestnutt brings a captivating innocence and gentle openness to the isolated boy who longs for his mother and for a world outside the confines of his dismal flat. Chestnutt's subtle performance offers the perfect foil to Steadman's volatile one; he is all natural economy and interiority, combined with dancer-like fluidity.

Stacey Koloski's décor, with its dingy furniture and dusky faded wallpaper, transforms the black box theatre into the credible claustrophobic environment of the dead end kids' apartment, while Tom Wyatt's lighting and sound designs complete the cocoon-like feeling of isolation.

Orphans, like many other of Mad Horse Theater's productions, is an ambitious choice: a play whose emotional spectrum, with its violence and heartbreak, is often unrelenting, but one which is also rewarding for the catharsis it brings and for the chance it offers to marvel at this remarkable little theatre company.

Photos Courtesy of Mad Horse Theater, Craig Robinson, photographer

Orphans plays March 13-30, 2014 at the Mad Horse Theater, 24 Mosher St., South Portland, Maine. 207-730-2389.

Related Articles View More Maine Stories   Shows

From This Author Carla Maria Verdino-Süllwold