It's a hard knock life

Fraternal thrashing in Kessler's Orphans
By MEGAN GRUMBLING  |  March 28, 2014

 theater_orphans2_main

Dylan Chestnutt, Nathan Speckman, and Michael
Kimball star in Mad Horse's production of Orphans.
Photo by Tom Wyatt.

Treat (Nathan Speckman) and his younger brother Phillip (Dylan Chestnutt) have lived alone in a North Philadelphia row house for most of their childhood. Treat steals to feed them and has ordered Phillip never to leave the house. Now young men, they are but two of the three orphans of Lyle Kessler’s Orphans, a drama about the fraternal shifts incited when a Chicago con-man named Harold (Michael Kimball) enters the lives of Treat and Phillip. Chris Horton directs a changed production, at the Hutchins School, for Mad Horse Theatre Company.

Treat and Phillip’s hideout home is a world of brown and beige (in Stacey Koloski’s haunting design), with worn wooden furniture and streaky walls and floors, and the four wooden posts in Mad Horse’s space give the set the intriguing feel of an abandoned domestic warehouse. The simple room contains a tiny TV, on which Philip watches Errol Flynn movies; an old sofa, under the cushions of which Philip hides the books Treat has forbidden him to learn to read; a few tables piled with cans of Starkist (the brothers’ staple); and a closet, into which Phillip regularly retreats to sit with his mother’s coats.

Inhabiting this insular home, Treat and Phillip (excellently paired in casting) pose a compelling physical contrast: Speckman, with his bigger, fleshier frame, wears his hair greasily ratty, with torn jeans and a flannel; hisTreat is a sweaty, not-too-bright, would-be bruiser with baby fat, and his portrayal makes affectingly clear the insecurities that underlie the young man’s petty outbursts. Chestnutt’s smaller, reed-like Phillip is unconsciously fastidious even in his simple button-down (though the impeccable wingtips he wears strain credibility just a touch). He is delicate, but has a physical nimbleness that mirrors that of his precocious mind.

While the brothers’ relationship could use a more visceral sense of the physical violence to which Treat is said to suddenly veer — that is, more threat from Speckman, more cringing fear from Chestnutt — the actors’ work with nuance is rich. As Phillip contends with Treat’s blunt, sometimes arbitrary authority — now a parent, now a sadistic older brother — Chestnutt does some fine, subtle work: watch his shifting eyes as Treat taunts, “Too bad you can’t go outside”; observe his childlike hands curve quietly and gently around his knees, his ankles, the back of a chair, as he watches, listens, and carefully seeks grasp on all that goes on in the house.

It’s when the savvy, well-dressed Harold shakes things up — introducing Phillip to bouillabaisse, loafers, and the Milky Way — that Speckman arrestingly opens up the fault lines in Treat. He reels dizzyingly between defiance and unconscious imitation of Harold’s swagger, between a childish need to please him and a whining disappointment, when he has failed to, that hovers on the edge of rage.

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