Theatre Review: Dennis Kelly’s Orphans

Claustrophobic Toronto mounting of 2009 British play Orphans is a dark, mesmerizing experience

The Coal Mine Theatre is a terrific, intimate space in the East end of Toronto, on the storied stretch of the Danforth. In essence, it’s a converted store front (with a dynamite Mexican restaurant beside it, incidentally) with a small room in its center and only seats about 60-70 people and depending on the play being mounted, the seating is often part of the play itself. We previously reviewed the Coal Mine’s brilliant production of the harrowing Southern trash Gothic Killer Joe (see that notice here) and were blown away by both the play and the staging and how the theatre’s washroom was actually part of the set. Audiences were encouraged to use that loo quickly before curtain time and the actors took it over, making the already skeezy entertainment that much skeezier. It was one of the most memorable, intimate evenings of theatre this writer has ever witnessed.

The Coal Mine’s new mounting of British playwright Dennis Kelly’s Orphans (which opened April 9th) blocks off the washroom, keeping the action centralized in the center of the room with seating on either end. Since the play was penned to be set in a single room, this makes sense and effectively traps the audience with three characters who, over the span of one dark, stormy night, completely unravel… all in the name of what they perceive to be love.

Helen (Diana Bentley) and Danny (David Patrick-Flemming) are a seemingly-happy British couple sitting down for a dinner for two, having recently learned that Helen is pregnant with their second child. Suddenly and without warning, Helen’s brother Liam (Tim Dowler-Coltman) bursts into the flat, clothes ripped and covered from head to toe in blood. But whose blood? The shocked couple try to make sense of the situation, with Danny taking the lead trying to glean the facts. The thuggish but seemingly sweet-natured Liam stumbles over his words, claiming he found a boy in the street who was unconscious and cut badly and he tried to help him. When the boy woke up and ran off into the night, the shocked Liam opted to seek shelter with his sister and brother-in-law. Helen smooths it over and, when the concerned Danny picks up the phone to call the police and alert them to what happened, Helen stops him. It seems,unbeknownst to Danny, that she’s been down this road many, many times before.

Helen and Liam are the orphans of the title you see, kids who lost their parents in a fire and who were bounced around from home to home. But while Helen found escape in the illusion of domestic bliss, the volatile — and violent — Liam found solace in the streets, running with the racist, brainless vermin that hide on the peripherals of every city. Liam is Helen’s albatross and she has spent a lifetime protecting her younger sibling. Or is it enabling? Over the next few hours, the vulgar truth of what really went down with Liam comes out, and so does the true nature of Helen and, eventually her shocked husband.

Director Leora Morris informs in the press notes that the title of the play not only stems from the fact that there are literal orphans in the piece but from the very root word “orph” which means to “pass from one status to another.” And that is indeed what happens in this dark, frightening three-hander, with power struggles and vitriol and worse volleying forth and back, disorienting and upsetting. Orphans is a horrific morality play and all three leads are mesmerizing in very different roles that, over the course of 95 minutes, transform and transgress. Bentley is the black soul of the piece however, a “Lady Macbeth” who manipulates and berates her husband to “fix” the situation while inadvertently destroying the only good things she has. She’s stunning and so is the play itself and the grim messages it conveys about human nature and the lies we choose to live by are potent.

If you’re in the Toronto area, Orphans runs at the Coal Mine until April 30th. Get your tickets here.


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