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A CurtainUp Review
Amy and the Orphans

Amy and the Orphans
Vanessa Aspillaga as Kathy, Jamie Brewer as Amy), Debra Monk as Maggie, Mark Blum as Jacob (Photo: Joan Marcus).
Our daughter's name means love. But that's not why we picked it. We picked it 'cause it was the shortest in that book of names. So even though the doctors told us she'll never learn to spell or write, if it was only three letters we said - We said we'd try. — Bobby to his wife Sarah, as they are facing the crucial decision not just about naming their Down syndrome baby daughter but how to deal with her future. .

I was hoping. The three of us could bond on this road trip — Maggie, one of Bobby's two older children, trying to undo the non-bonding effect of her parents decision as she and her rarely seen siblings are headed to the retirement home where Bobby just died.
Lindsey Ferrentino has written an extraordinary play about an ordinary American family. It packs all the elements of a Greek tragedy into just ninety minutes. Perhaps the punch-to-the-gut pain and regret she unpacks over the course of 14 brief scenes is doubly potent because Amy and the Orphans , commissioned by the Roundabout Theater and now playing at their Laura Pels venue, is part of her own family history. Sad to say, Ms. Ferrentino's beloved Aunt Amy Jacobs (1964-2014) was just just one of all too many Down syndrome children who were born at a time when they were still being misdiagnosed as hopelessly unfit to be loved and cared for by their own families. Amy Jacobs was doubly unfortunate in that she experienced the horrors of the eventually closed Willowbrook facility in Staten Island, New York.

What makes the playwright's tribute to her own aunt at once heartwarming and horrific is that it's also a celebration of the change for those living with Down syndrome who came after her. While Amy could be "a contender" only while fantasizing herself as one of the characters in the movies that were central to childhood and adult life, today she could be a real contender.

And so, Ms. Ferrentino's Aunt Amy is brought back to life by Jamie Brewer who's very much living a fulfilling life. She's appeared in numerous TV shows and most recently became the first person with Down syndrome to walk down the runway during Fashion Week.

Ms Brewer captures all the subtleties at play in her role. However, while her Amy gets to deliver the monologue that brings the play to a striking conclusion, she doesn't appear on stage until the fourth scene. But that's exactly as it should be. As is evident from the title, this isn't just about Amy but her older siblings Maggie (Debra Monk) and Jacob (Mark Blum). All three of these title characters are orphaned by the death of their father, which is the event that drives the play's plot, it's by referring only to two of the three as orphans, the effect of their parents long ago decision to let Amy be raised by professional caretakers is immediately clear: she may be a member of the family, but only peripherally so.

Mark Blum and Debra Monk, both unfailingly superb performers, don't disappoint here. They add some much needed humor throughout, and especially during their initial meet-up at LaGuardia Airport. Some of their funny business sometimes teeters towards sitcom, but not enough to diminish how they deepen and expand on the theme as they demonstrate the ripple effect of Amy's outsiderdom. Besides never really getting to know Amy, they also failed to maintain a close relationship with each other.

Maggie refers to what she and Jacob will be doing after their arrival in New York (she from Chicago, he from California) as a road trip. While they do rent a car, pick up Amy at her Queens group home and head to their former home in Montauk to memorialize their father. Though this road trip doesn't take them very far geographically, it covers plenty of emotional territory.

Besides the very apt casting of Jamie Brewer and the terrific Monk and Blum in the leading roles, this tragicomedy is smartly structured to take the story all the way back. In fact, the opening and several other fluidly interjected scenes introduces two other crucial characters: Sarah (Diane Davis) and Bobby (Josh McDermott), the parents who have gone to a couple's retreat to work out what to do about their baby daughter.

A sixth and vital character to knit past and present together is Kathy (Vanessa Aspillaga) Amy's friend in her state funded and controlled group home. Kathy makes us fully understand Amy's response to her sister and brother's offer to make amends for her misguided exile from the family. Aspillaga adds acting dynamite and more humor

Keeping a play that travels back and forth in time and to numerous locales moving forward smoothly is not an easy task, especially within such a tight framework. So, hats off to Director Scott Ellis for guiding the actors through the escalating revelations about their lives and feelings. Compliments are also due to the designers. Rachel Hauck's basically plain and simple set accommodates all the different locations without clunky blackouts for stagehands to move props on and off stage. Aleja Vietta's costumes, Kenneth Posner and John Gromada's mood setting lighting and soundscape are also effective.

To sum up, Amy's story will, like one of those ear-hugging tunes in a musical, stay with you long after you leave the theater. I'm still sad for the Amy who's gone, and glad that we no longer need a pretend Down syndrome actor to portray her.

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Amy and the Orphans by Lindsey Ferrentino
Directed by Scott Elis
Cast: Vanessa Aspillaga (Kathy) Mark Blum (Jacob), Jamie Brewer (Amy), Diane Davis (Sarah), Josh McDermit(Bobby), Debra Monk(Maggie).
Sets: Rachel Hauck
Costumes:Alejo Vietti
Lighting: Kenneth Posner
Sound and Original Compositions: John Gramada
Vocal Coach: Liz Hayes
Stage Manager: Devin De Santis
Running Time: 90 minutes, no intermission
Roundabout's Laura Pels Theatre 111 W. 46th St
From 2/01/18; opening 3/01/18; closing 4/22/18.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 2/28 press performance

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