The play Andy and the Orphans, currently onstage at Sol Theatre courtesy of Primal Forces Productions, was originally titled Amy and the Orphans. This version of the play was gender-flipped to accommodate the casting of Edward Barbanell, a Coral Springs resident who actually understudied the role on Broadway last year and shares his character’s diagnosis of Down’s Syndrome.
Barbanell’s casting is a huge win for authentic representation, and the actor gave a nuanced and moving performance as the movie-obsessed Andy, a character who was heavily based on the playwright Lindsay Ferrentino’s real-life aunt Amy. Like the title character of the play, the real Amy had Down’s Syndrome and spent most of her life institutionalized. Amy and The Orphans was thus Ferrentino’s way of grappling with the more unpleasant aspects of her aunt’s life.
The inciting incident of the play is the death of Andy’s father Bobby, which prompts his newly “orphaned” siblings Maggie (Patti Gardner) and Jacob (Jeffrey Bruce) to make a rare visit to their brother Andy in order to tell him what has happened and take him on a road trip to the funeral. What they didn’t count on was Jacqueline Laggy as Andy’s caregiver Kathy being required to join them or being confronted with a devastating revelation about their brother’s past.
Though some criticism of the show focuses on the fact that Ferrentino seemed to put Maggie and Jacob at her story’s center rather than Andy himself, I did not get the impression that the playwright focused on them unduly. After all, the character of Andy has a somewhat inherently limited perspective, and the experience of the loved ones with disabilities can certainly be as complex, interesting, and stage-worthy as the stories of those who are disabled themselves.
I definitely think this play explored both sides of the story and presented Andy’s siblings as relatively sympathetic characters, since the most horrific events of the play happened when they were children and couldn’t conceivably intervene. I also viewed their efforts to reconnect and make amends with Andy as sincere ones, and may too have been skewed by Bruce and Gardner’s wonderful performances. Their humorous road trip antics and laughably pedestrian concerns (like Jacob’s obsession with juicing and Maggie’s skittle-related health scare) did much to balance out the story’s darker aspects, as did Laggy’s Kathy’s no-nonsense exasperation with the two.
The parents of these three “orphans,” on the other hand, portrayed in flashback by Joey De La Rua and Amber Lynn Benson, came across as somewhat less likable, and I’m not sure how much of that to put down to the writing and how much to the performance. Though Benson showed some considerable comedic chops as Sarah during the couples’ lighter moments, she definitely came off as a little too casual and self-assured when making the wrenching decision to institutionalize Andy (especially in comparison to the character of Tami in Falling earlier this season, who wholeheartedly resists making a similar decision about her own son).
De la Rua as Bobby seemed somewhat more genuinely affected by the gravity of the situation than his wife did, but it is implied that both are complicit in surrendering Andy to what we would eventually learn was a horrifically abusive environment—it cost him his teeth and a chunk of his leg! It’s also, unfathomably, implied that Bobby and Sarah knew exactly how horrific that this environment was.
Fortunately, Andy seems to have found some happiness in a more caring institutional environment by the play’s present and found even a job and a girlfriend, and I was glad to see him assert his desire to stay there even after his guilt-ridden siblings presented him with an alternative.
Still, Andy’s woundedness is expressed in a surprisingly moving closing monologue in which he uses movie quotes to express his complex feelings about his family and his past. The incredible work of Barbanell in the role lent credence to play’s conviction that his character, too, may have been able to live a more productive and fulfilling life—if only anyone had ever given him a real chance, Andy “coulda been a contender” indeed.