Brothers Phillip and Treat are repeatedly told, "Let me give you some encouragement" by Harold in Lyle Kessler's play "Orphans." Harold means a hug, something he never received as an orphan. Phillip accepts the emotional crutch. Older brother Treat indignantly refuses.
In this intriguing and difficult play about three very lost souls is a lesson in self-worth, survival and vulnerability. In a clear-cut and often wrenching production at the Vanguard Theatre in Fullerton, director Jay Louden looks for the heart in Kessler's bitter fable, and finds it, but just barely misses the guts.
Treat and Phillip were orphaned at a very early age. As a preteen, Treat prevented their institutionalization by biting the hand of the social worker who came to collect them. Since then he has supported Phillip by thievery and Treat has grown into the dumbest and most animalistic Artful Dodger in modern literature. Treat has also stunted, he believes, Phillip's intellectual growth. Phillip believes he will die from exposure to the air outside the house, and Treat insists that Phillip not go out into it.
Then, suddenly, Treat brings home Harold, an older man he found drunk in a bar. It's a sort of kidnapping, according to Treat, with benefits in the negotiable stocks and bonds Harold carries and in Harold's wise ways in the world.
Harold easily becomes their father figure, but Treat's warped values and childlike mentality rebel. Phillip, who has been growing all along, in spite of Treat's attempts to keep him a baby, is nurtured and fulfilled by Harold's encouragement.
The play is as outrageously unrealistic as most of Tennessee Williams' plays, and just as wise and knowledgeable about the human condition. It's 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 in this sterling revival of the play.
Louden's staging is held together by the two brothers, played with utmost urgency and deliberate force by James Cude as the not-so-crazy Phillip, and John Jure as the frighteningly fragile Treat. Cude's sense of humor brings Phillip's supposedly belated maturity a delicate and adorable honesty, and Jure's evening-long sense of panic draws an indelible portrait that makes his final collapse heartbreaking.
Although Paul A. Castellano hits all of the right notes and does create a believable father figure, he misses the terrifying subtext Harold should have. Castellano's Harold never hints at the basic evil in the man. Although he is dedicated to making the brothers survivors, he fervently follows his own road to destruction in which they are finally the real victims.
* "Orphans," Vanguard Theatre, 699A S. State College Blvd., Fullerton. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 5 p.m. Ends Sept. 25. $15-$17. (714) 526-8007. Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes.
James Cude: Phillip
John Jure: Treat
Paul A. Castellano: Harold
A Vanguard Theatre Ensemble production of Lyle Kessler's drama. Director: Jay Louden. Scenic design: Ellen King. Lighting design: Caitlin Guyan. Technical direction: Nathan Jenkins. Costumes/props: Penelope VanHorne. Stage manager: Michele Petersen.