The best part of Lindsey Ferrentino’s Amy and the Orphans is Jamie Brewer, the first actor with Down syndrome to play a lead in either an off-Broadway or Broadway production. She is absolutely wonderful. She has a male understudy, Edward Barbanell, so at certain performances, the title changes to Andy and the Orphans. Brewer is completely moving, impressively talented, and takes your heart in her hands.
Amy and the Orphans was written as a tribute to Ferrentino’s aunt, Amy. Starting in 1947 to 1987 institutions such as Willowbrook State School housed children with intellectual disabilities. Located in Staten Island, the school, which was designed for 4,000, had a population of 6,000 and was the biggest state-run institution for people with mental disabilities in the United States. Conditions and questionable medical practices and experiments prompted Sen. Robert Kennedy to call it a “snake pit”. Public outcry led to its closure in 1987, and to federal civil rights legislation protecting people with disabilities. Geraldo Rivera conducted a series of investigations at Willowbrook uncovering the deplorable conditions, including overcrowding, inadequate sanitary facilities, and physical and sexual abuse of residents by members of the school’s staff. The exposé, entitled Willowbrook: The Last Great Disgrace, lead to a class action lawsuit in 1972, but it took until 1987 to close the school down.
Amy and the Orphans is first set in the 1950’s and follows Sarah (Diane Davis) and Bobby (Josh McDermitt) as they make the decision to put their baby into an institution. Their marriage is falling apart, they are falling apart and this decision is the breaking point. Then every other scene is set in the present and the parents have both died. Later, their children, Jacob (Mark Blum) and Maggie (Debra Monk), come together to get their estranged sister, Amy (Jamie Brewer), out of the group home. They tell her of their parents’ death and intend to take her to her father’s memorial. Having guilt over the past and not really understanding what really happened to Amy, they also now want to take care of her. Once at the group home, things do not go as planned, as Amy is now a ward of the state and must have a caretaker with her. Enter the brash, loud-mouthed Kathy (Vanessa Aspillaga). As time is spent, the truth of what happened to Amy becomes clear.
This play is actually hard to review because the material really needs to be fleshed out and it is not. There are potentially 3 plays here. The story of Sarah and Bobby, the story of Amy, and the story of the siblings and how the truth being kept from them shaped their lives. Ferrentino has something here, it’s just not complete.
Scott Ellis’ direction does not help with keeping this play on track. Everything here just feels like it’s skimming the surface and is not truthful.
The acting also seems subpar with Davis and McDermitt there for the comedic relief, but what they are talking about is not funny. Blum and Monk, who are wonderful actors, also seem like they are skimming the surface, settling on caricatures rather than fleshed out human beings, but I blame some of this on the writing. Aspillaga as Kathy brings some heart as the caretaker who cares. Her affinity with Jamie Brewer is touching and the two of them shine. Bravo to Ms. Brewer, who makes us laugh, cry, and see what a truly brave human being can be like. Ms. Brewer puts it all on the line and walks away with a winning performance for her off-Broadway debut.
Amy and the Orphans: Laura Pels Theater at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theater, 111 W. 46th St. until April 22nd.