Harry Houdini’s straitjacket escape was first performed behind a curtain. He got into the jacket, disappeared out of the audience’s view, and reappeared with freed arms. Houdini soon realised though that the performance enthralled audiences even more if they watched him struggle. They enjoyed seeing the stress of the escape, the tug and pull of the material laid bare before their eyes. There is something mesmerizing in watching someone attempt to break free, accomplishing a seemingly impossible task, executing an act of human labour without any pretense of magic or mystery.
The premise of Lyle Kessler’s Orphans is as straightforward as the straitjacket escape. Each character is a grown-up orphan, and each in their own way wrestle for success and belonging as they feel the burden of their own confinement. What makes this play compelling is that endless exertion, that grueling struggle fueled by often misguided motives. But unlike Houdini’s act, Orphans is imbued with a looming sense of utter futility; there is very little hope that freedom is ever attainable.
Some characters are more confined than others. Philip (Chris Pybus) spends his days trapped in a dilapidated North Philadelphia row house, waiting for his older brother Treat (Alexander Neal) to bring home any gifts petty thievery gives. Treat is a parental figure plagued by fear of abandonment, and while he puts Hellmann’s mayo and StarKist tuna on the table, he also forbids Philip to read and convinces him he’s allergic to the outdoors. It’s a complicated, George-and-Lenny relationship, love mixed with exploitation. And like the characters in Of Mice and Men, their best laid plans also go awry.
Hoping for more than just quick cash, Treat takes home a hostage, Harold (Mitchell Mullen), an older man obsessed with ‘Dead End Kids’ who turns out to be a Chicago gangster and an admirer of Houdini. Instead of hurting Treat and Philip, Harold, an orphan himself, decides to make a family of his own. He hires Treat and lives with them in their newly renovated home. As competition for control clashes with the comforts of family-living, Treat and Philip search for an escape from who they once were and look to who they might become.
The struggles so richly interwoven in Kessler’s script are unfortunately upstaged by struggling actors. It’s a shame to watch Neal battle through an American accent, and Pybus surrenders to a simplistic portrayal of Philip. The main casualty however is their brotherly relationship, which stops well short of the umbilical bond, parasitic yet crucial to survival, that the text promises. Mullen’s Harold is a real saving grace, and he delivers his parable-like speeches with verve and ferocity.
What resonates most is Harold’s story about free enterprise. Out of desperation, an overzealous newsagent orphan in chilly Chicago sells that which he needs most to survive. When basic survival is at stake, there is a sort of overwhelming desperation, the kind Houdini must have felt in his water torture cell as he wriggled his way through his entertainment, his economic livelihood and most importantly, his escape. That desperation is the fuel that keeps these orphans going. But too much of it can bring about ruin. Giving it all you’ve got sometimes leaves you a ‘poor motherless news-boy, totally exposed, on that frigid January day’.
The sad truth is that the escape is just an illusion. Whether behind a curtain or in complete view, the momentary freedom is only ever succeeded by another jacket, another torture cell. It is, after all, the life of an escape artist. And any orphan bent on survival is better to be like Houdini. They should find the rhythm of the struggle, the tossing and the turning of it all, and embrace it as a necessary and never-ending aspect of human existence.
Orphans is on until 5th March 2016. Click here for tickets.