Every so often one encounters a happy surprise in the theater, and “Amy and the Orphans,” a play by Lindsey Ferrentino being presented by Roundabout Theatre Company and superbly directed by Scott Ellis, is such an occasion. It is a deeply felt drama, expertly constructed, and offers laughs along the way to its strong emotional impact. The play deals candidly with Down syndrome and how it is confronted, and in addition has a person with Down syndrome in the title role.
We first meet Diane Davis as Sarah and Joseph McDermitt as Bobby, a quarrelling couple whose marriage is under a strain, and it soon becomes clear that a major problem in the relationship is what to do about their daughter Amy, who, we eventually learn, has Down syndrome. Bobby is furious that Sarah has been scouting placement homes on her own.
As we also learn, the couple is being depicted in an earlier flashback time than the contemporary action of the play. They are the parents of the adult brother and sister whom we next meet, Mark Blum as Jacob and Debra Monk as Maggie, who have come together, he flying in from California, on the occasion of the death of their father (their mother is already gone). Maggie now frantically looks upon herself and her brother as orphans. Jacob, although he has seriously veered toward Christianity from his Jewish roots, much to his sister’s chagrin, and has become a health food junkie, is more flippant about their status. Much of their dialogue is very funny.
But they are both agreed on a mission—how to tell their sister Amy, who has grown up in a residence and looked after by Vanessa Aspillaga as the outspoken, larger-than-life Kathy, that her father is dead. They have not had much contact with Amy, and their well-intentioned approach is driven by ignorance and condescension.
Amy is wonderfully played by Jamie Brewer, an actress with Down syndrome wisely chosen to play the role. She was in the cast when I saw the play, but at some performances Edward Barbanell, who also has Down syndrome, plays the role, then called Andy instead of Amy.
While Maggie and Jacob, partly as concerned human beings and partly out of guilt, want to take Amy to live with one or the other, Amy, we find, is deeply rooted in her own world, with friends and self-confidence. She loves movies (her father used to visit and take her to see films). The portrait is a revealing one of a young woman of potential, an affirmative statement flying in the face of societal tendencies to dismiss such individuals as inferior.
There is an emotionally thrilling scene in which Amy asserts herself by quoting famous movie lines she has memorized through years of being a film fan, including “I coulda been a contender.” She is her own person and wants no part of being uprooted and taken anywhere else. It is an educational moment for Maggie and Jacob—and for us.
Ferrentino, inspired by her aunt Amy who had Down syndrome, has written a deeply personal play with wisdom and humor. It works splendidly as a poignant, uplifting drama, and with special importance, it shows what Down syndrome performers can accomplish. The entire cast is excellent, and at curtain call time, there is the pleasure of applauding what a talented group of actors can accomplish within the framework of an exceptionally creative and stirring play. At the Laura Pels Theatre at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre, 111 West 46th Street. Phone: 212- 719-1300. Reviewed March 5, 2018.