Orphans is a play by Lyle Kessler. It premiered in 1983 at the Matrix Theatre in Los Angeles starring Joe Pantoliano, Lane Smith and Paul Leiber, where it received critical and commercial success and won the Drama-Logue Award.
In 1985 it went on to be directed by Gary Sinise at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre starring John Mahoney, Terry Kinney and Kevin Anderson which Sinise said "kicked" the three actors "off into the movie business". John Mahoney, who received the Derwent Award and Theatre World Award for his performance in the production said that "Orphans affected people more than any other play I've ever done. I still get mail from it, I still get people stopping me on the street, and it's twenty years later".
After its Chicago run, Orphans traveled with the Steppenwolf company to New York and in 1986 was the first Steppenwolf production to be performed internationally in London where Albert Finney, playing the part of Harold, won an Olivier Award in London's West End at The Apollo Theatre.
The Steppenwolf productions in London and the United States helped establish Kessler's status as a major American playwright as well as the company's signature "rock and roll" brand of theatre. To help highlight the emotional intensity of Kessler's parable they featured an assortment of compositions by Pat Metheny and Lyle Mays to be played along in the background of the piece and which have remained optional for every production since.
Orphans has many far reaching fans beyond the typical theater crowd. Lou Reed is an outspoken admirer of the play, and Tom Waits, who had his own play, Frank's Wild Years, done at Steppenwolf,also directed by Gary Sinise, was apparently so moved by Kessler's Orphans that at its conclusion,long after all the rest of the audience had left, sat in his seat too overwhelmed by the experience to get up.
Orphans is performed continually in almost every country in the world and was made into "Orphans" the film, starring Matthew Modine, Albert Finney and Kevin Anderson. In 2005, Al Pacino took to the stage with Orphans at the Greenway Court Theatre in Los Angeles.
Two grown Orphan brothers live in an old dilapidated row house in North Philadelphia-deserted in childhood by an unfaithful father and by the death of their mother.
Older brother Treat , brutal and violent, provides for his younger brother Phillip by being a petty thief- interpreting the role of father .
With the love and protectiveness of an older brother and an orphan's fear of abandonement, Treat takes away Phiilip's chances to grow up , depriving him of knowledge and forcing him to live in a world of illiteracy and innocence,— relegating him to their childhood lost .
As Treat is out stealing to put food on the table, Phillip never leaves the house, thinking he will die from something outside because of a near deadly allergic reaction he had as a child .
Haunted by the death of their mother, he spends his time laying in her closet filled with unworn clothes, and curious about the world he secretly attempts to understand things by watching reruns of the" Price is Right", and "'underlining words" in newspapers and old books he finds lying around.
Treat kidnaps and ties up a Chicago gangster named Harold. Harold, an orphan himself, with the prowess of an escape artist, loosens the ties that bind him, turns the tables around, and with gun in hand, puts himself into the role of teacher, healer and surrogate parent .
Described by the New York Times as "theater for the senses and emotions,"
T.H. McCULLOH of the Los Angeles Times wrote it's" just as wise and knowledgeable about the human condition" as Tennessee Williams and "also as theatrical as Williams. Kessler has something very important to say, and he says it in terms we can't ignore. The biggest message is that we need each other, and that's something the viewer can't ignore...."
Tony Adler of the Chicago Reader declared "Lyle Kessler's unassuming tale of two nearly feral brothers and the mysterious businessman who befriends them was and remains among the most devastating things I’ve seen onstage"
Lyle Kessler's Orphans, among many of his other pieces of literature , has been praised as a hybrid of 20th century realism , Pinter-esque absurdism , and Shakespearean tragedy, but in many ways it aligns itself better with the literary tradition of Magical Realism ,a more prevalent genre in Latin American countries than in the North American theatre. The way Orphans can move from a hyper realistic state into a parable while still maintaining its emotional pull and deeply felt sense of reality goes well with what magical realism is understood to be- magical elements blended into a realistic atmosphere in order to access a deeper understanding of reality.
The American theatrical tradition tends to not embrace these perceived contradictions as readily . An expressionistic play is expected to be cerebral and conceptual not visceral. A realistic play is expected to maintain the same logic that one sees in the outside world. But, like Kafka , Kessler grasps for a reality that is felt within us but doesn't always obey the logic outside of its own prescribed universe.
Orphans has been applauded for its lack of dependence on one particular theatrical approach . As quoted by Los Angeles Times critic Scott Collins when reviewing a Deaf West Theatre Company , production in 1996, "Whatever the medium, the viewer finds it hard not to be drawn into the emotional journey...". This production of Orphans, by the first sign language theater in the western United States, went on to be a Critic's Choice from the Drama-Logue newspaper and Joseph Dean Anderson's performance as Phillip won him a 6th Annual Ticket Holder's Award under the New Discoveries category.
Further praise for Kessler's ability to create something with such flexibility , while still taking people of its "emotional journey", came from a 2007 production of Orphans at the Penguin Repertory Company in upstate New York where NY Times critic Sylviane Gold, calling the production a "splendid revival" mused " it is strange to say about a play that burst into New York from Chicago in 1985 on the strength of the testosterone-fueled acting of the Steppenwolf Theater Company" but it can be directed "with as much attention to the play's heart as to its fist".
In Japan, where Orphans made its premiere in 1991 by a "Tokyo style" theater group going on to have a nation wide tour and performing continually in theaters around Japan ever since, including the internationally renowned Kaze Theater Troupe, further illustrates Orphans ability to harmonize with different theatrical variations as well as cultural traditions.
Orphan's ability to maintain its inherent emotional pull regardless of its theatrical approach, is one of the reasons for its continued success.