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While SKYLIGHT was the first show planned for After Midnight’s Summer ’05 season, the first on the calendar became ORPHANS.
With Joe’s son Travis already on board for a role in SKYLIGHT, a production of ORPHANS came to mind – one which could include an ideal role for Joe’s other son, Peter (home for the summer after receiving his MFA in playwriting at Rutgers and just prior to his move to Los Angeles to break into the movie biz), and long-time Midnight collaborator Larry Dell, who was anxious to do some stagework while waiting for the revival of the Company’s JESSE JAMES project.
Set in a small apartment in North Philadelphia, ORPHANS was an ideal opening project at HH Studio.
(Coincidentally, just prior to ORPHANS’ opening in St. Louis, it was announced that Al Pacino was going to do a workshop of ORPHANS (in the role of Harold) in L.A., in preparation for a Spring, ‘06, Broadway production.)

St. Louis Post-Dispatch feature article
Written by Judy Newmark

It is a play about fathers and sons, one of the resounding themes of world culture. Think Abraham and Isaac. Think "Oedipus the King." Think Ivan Turgenev, whose landmark Russian novel actually takes "Fathers and Sons" as its title.

Think the Hanrahans. Joe Hanrahan -- actor, director and playwright -- has been a fixture on the St. Louis theater scene for something like 30 years. A veteran of such troupes as Theatre Project Company, Orthwein Theatre and the New Theatre, he and David Wassilak founded tiny Midnight Productions (now Midnight Company) about seven years ago. He passed his passion on to his sons. Peter Hanrahan, who studied theater as a Washington University undergraduate, just earned his MFA in playwriting at Rutgers University. Travis Hanrahan is active in theater at Christian Brothers College High School, where he'll be a junior in the fall.

Now, Joe Hanrahan is directing the brothers in "Orphans," a three-man play, at the intimate HH Studio in Maplewood. Larry Dell -- who has often worked with Joe Hanrahan -- completes the cast. Dell isn't related, Joe Hanrahan acknowledges, "but Larry has long wanted me to adopt him."

For this crowd, a play called "Orphans" sounds a little off the mark. But Lyle Kessler's play is, in truth, about families -- and particularly about one crucial family tie.

Both comic and sad, "Orphans" centers on two brothers who were long ago abandoned by their parents. The younger boy, Phillip, stays safe by staying in the siblings' shabby digs, a virtual prisoner, while his older brother, Treat, supports them with petty crimes. When Treat brings home a drunk named Harold who seems to have some money, the brothers conceive a kidnapping scheme. But Harold -- who turns out to be a gangster on the lam -- becomes a surrogate for the man they really miss.

The available cast led Joe Hanrahan to "Orphans" as he followed the usual Midnight rule. "We stage plays that we want to do ourselves, even if we have to write them," he explains. "And when it turned out that the boys were going to be in town for the summer, I grabbed the chance to work with them."

Peter Hanrahan suspects that real-life connections won't compromise the play, but will make it richer.

"Maybe the usual filters (between actors and directors) aren't there," he says, "but that facilitates the process. And because our father is there, maybe that helps us realize the loss that the brothers (in the play) have experienced, and why Harold becomes their father figure."

Just as fathers may lose their tempers, directors have been known to go off on actors. But Hanrahan says that's never been his style. "I'm a gentle director," he says. "And I am making a real effort to think of Peter and Travis as actors."

Still, on one side of the lights or the other, theater is an interest the Hanrahans share. "All three of us wanted to work on a play this summer," Peter Hanrahan says. "But it's nice that it's also family time."

St. Louis Post-Dispatch review
Reviewed by Judy Newmark

St. Louis' edge theater scene - a lot more resilient than people sometimes think - has alit in another unexpected location: Maplewood.

That's where "Orphans," the latest offering from After Midnight, reminds audiences that theater depends, above all, on the passionate performance of strong scripts.

Nobody denies that attractive accouterments - high-gloss technical values, ample space, audience comforts - are desirable. But if those aren't available, theater still can flourish. Just ask Joe Hanrahan.

Hanrahan - director of Lyle Kessler's "Orphans" and co-founder of the Midnight Company, After Midnight's parent troupe - will stage theater anyplace. In seasons past, his venues have included an abandoned brewery, an art gallery and assorted saloons. If somebody told Hanrahan that he had to stage a play on a stairwell, he'd probably find a play that could be staged on a stairwell.

More than anyone else in town, Hanrahan trusts that theater is fundamentally rooted in imagination, not money. So it's really no surprise that his low-tech production of "Orphans" - a three-man drama performed by his sons, Peter and Travis Hanrahan, and one of his favorite actors, Larry Dell - clasps the audience in a viselike grip for close to two hours. It crushes the heart to the breaking point.

The actors play determined, if luckless, characters. Peter Hanrahan portrays a reckless young criminal, Treat, who supports himself and his younger brother, Phillip (Travis Hanrahan), with stick-ups.

The boys' father split years before; their mother died. Treat's confused, quasi-parental impulses - simultaneously protective, controlling and merely ignorant - make him confine his brother to their shabby house, a prisoner of deadly "allergies."

When Treat drags home a prosperous-looking drunk called Harold (Dell), everything changes. The boys' minds are on crime: Could kidnapping pay off? But Harold, a gangster on the lam, needs a quiet place to lie low, and the brothers need a father. Could they satisfy each other with the creation of a warm, surrogate family?

The play's frequent hilarious moments make that seem possible. But even its brightest episodes - Harold serving bouillabaisse to Phillip, Treat strutting in a chic new suit - glow in a subtle shadow. Nothing good can come from this. Deliberately echoing plays by Harold Pinter and Sam Shepard, Kessler tempers his outrageous humor with harbingers of horror beyond the horizon.

Always an imposing actor, Dell never has been better than he is as Harold - suave, thoughtful, considerate even in peril. His presentation of bouillabaisse, extrapolated into a lesson in language and cosmology, combines intellect and paternal affection without a hint of arrogance. He sits at the table in a silly ruffled apron and rises as a "Leave It to Beaver" dad, generous and wise. It's an astonishing moment, one that director Joe Hanrahan allows all the time it deserves.

Hanrahan plays the brothers against Dell with acuity. Peter Hanrahan seethes manfully, although he could lose the overly mannered clenched jaw, which verges on a tic. Travis Hanrahan gives a touching performance as the only character to deserve the audience's hope. In his first scene, caressing a red shoe that might have belonged to his mother, he gives the audience its ticket to Weird-land without a single word.

"Orphans" plays on a bare-bones set at HH Studio, normally a place for classes in acting and writing. It's too warm, it's too small (40 seats) - it's glamour in reverse. But people who love off-off-Broadway theater, or who feel curious about it, may want to give "Orphans" a shot. This is the real thing.

Orphans Playback Review
After Midnight
Written by Lyle Kessler
Directed by Joe Hanrahan

Orphans, the latest offering from the edgy folks at After Midnight, has made a splash in the St. Louis summer theater scene. Far from your typical dramatic tale, Orphans is a black comedy—more tragic than comedic, at times—involving a minimalist set and just three characters. Chief are brothers Treat (Peter Hanrahan) and Phillip (Travis Hanrahan—the two, sons of the director, are brothers themselves) who live alone in a semi-squalor. After the departure (or was it death? The audience is never quite sure) of their parents when they were young, Treat has assumed responsibility for his brother, providing for them by a life of pick-pocketing and petty crime. Prone to violence, Treat also has control issues, such that he dominates his brother, keeping him a virtual prisoner in their Philadelphia home.

As the lights come up, we first meet Phillip, an uneducated (though, we come to learn, somewhat self-taught) adolescent busying himself in his home. He steals to the window and back, watching in trepidation for his big brother. Though Phillip obviously loves Treat, he is also afraid of the elder sibling’s violent outbursts and near-constant threats. Ever the observer, Phillip regales Treat with tales of what he has seen each day, whether on TV or from the window of their apartment.

One night, Treat brings home Harold, a drunk, seemingly wealthy Chicago businessman, intending to kidnap the man and hold him for ransom. That plan, of course, backfires, and instead the boys find themselves with a surrogate father of sorts who teaches them life lessons and provides encouragement. At first reticent, Treat allows himself to be refined, as he works for Harold and begins to better understand how to interact in the world.

Under Harold’s guidance, Phillip learns how to circumvent the system (don’t know how to tie a shoelace? Simple: Wear loafers!) and gains the confidence to overcome his fears, defy his brother, and leave the apartment. This new alliance, however, causes further rifts between the brothers. All the while, the audience is left to wonder about Harold. Where did he get his money? And, perhaps more importantly, why did he flee Chicago?

In a scene both hilarious and frightening, Treat returns home late with a briefcase full of stocks and securities purchased on behalf of Harold. He’s late, he explains, because a large, black man on the bus took up two spaces, and Treat wanted to teach him a lesson in civility. What if he had pulled out a gun and shot you, Harold demands; then where would my securities be? To prove his point, Harold asks Phillip to play the role of the black man, which Phillip takes to comical excess. It is not enough for Treat to realize the error of his ways, however; he ultimately rejects Harold, despite his brother’s obvious fondness for the man.

The real-life brothers Hanrahan are absolutely stunning in their respective roles. As the well-intentioned but socially stunted Phillip, Travis is expressive, versatile, and believable. And Peter does a solid job in portraying Treat, a boy forced to grow up far too soon—and, by default, one with far too much bravado and deep-seated anger. When he stands before Harold, fists clenched at his side and literally snarling with rage, he is fully convincing as one who resents the inferior hand he’s been dealt. Larry Dell is both charming and mysterious in his role of endearing con man Harold; the affection he bestows on the boys is truly touching.

With its strong, sparse cast and tight script, director Joe Hanrahan seems to have had his work done for him. (Kudos to him for raising such talented kids!) As for set and lighting, well, they were minimalist, at best. HH Studios is basically a storefront space; audience members entered into the “theater” itself from the street. This, of course, meant that any latecomers (and there were a couple) interrupted the play, as did audience members taking restroom breaks during the performance. Additionally, the space was cooled by a single window unit air conditioner—fine before the play, but a bit stifling during, as the A/C was cut to reduce the noise. A bare-bones set composed of a kitchen table, loveseat, and TV set was sufficient to create the “home” these boys shared, first with each other and then with Harold.

Orphans is a solid production from a talented theater company; catch it before it’s gone. Laura Hamlett

Fear Itself
Orphans glance into an unpredictable world
By Deanna Jent

A classic playwriting exercise has the writer establish two characters who have some bond, then introduce a third character who causes loyalties to shift. Lyle Kessler seems to have taken this exercise to the extreme: His Orphans follows the pattern to the letter, providing a variety of power struggles between two brothers and the outsider who changes their lives.

This twenty-year-old script plays like a tribute to Mamet, Albee and Shepard, with a little bit of American Buffalo, a touch of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and a smattering of True West. There's rock & roll, tough talk, violence and mayonnaise; it's a testosterone-driven story fueled by fear and anger.

Produced by After Midnight, the show features real-life brothers Travis and Peter Hanrahan, directed by their father, Joe Hanrahan. For Joe, this might be a parenting dream come true -- not just working with his sons, but having them do what he says. How often does a parent get that? Rather than being an exercise in nepotism, the casting makes good dramatic sense: The physical resemblance between Travis and Peter gives an added dash of realism to the production, and knowing that they're really brothers makes the friction between the characters seem that much more real.

The play begins with a fearful Phillip awaiting his brother's return. Travis invests Phillip with quivering worry and just the right amount of adolescent awkwardness. Peter, playing older brother Treat, seems as if he might explode at any moment. His gestures lash out unexpectedly as he tries to mask his anxiety behind a tough man's swagger. Peter's performance is sometimes too big for the intimate space in which the play is performed; at times his gestures overpower his characterization, drawing attention to his acting technique rather than to the action of the play.

Treat supports himself and his brother through petty thefts but thinks he's struck gold when he brings home Harold, a drunken older man whose briefcase is full of valuable stocks and bonds. Larry Dell perfectly embodies the intriguing character of Harold, an orphan who is now rich through some sort of shady business dealings. Rather than escaping his so-called kidnappers, Harold makes himself at home, cooking corned beef and cabbage for Phillip and employing Treat to run small errands. He embraces the role of father for these two "dead-end" kids, trying to teach Treat lessons in moderation and self-control while giving Phillip the confidence to venture outside on his own.

Orphans is performed in the front room of the HH Studio in Maplewood. The space provides a true sense of the unpredictable outside world trying to intrude on the safely confined apartment of Treat and Phillip; pedestrians walking by the large windows glance curiously inside as the story unfolds. Unfortunately, the limited audience seating is all on the same level as the stage space, making it difficult to see if you're sitting anywhere but the front row. And while the two lighting instruments provide enough illumination to see the actors, they create odd shadows and a distracting sense of theatricality in a play that depends on the illusion of realism.

Not surprisingly, the brothers change positions of power at the end of the play. Travis shows us Phillip's newly discovered strength in subtle vocal and physical changes, but two aspects of the production mar the ending. Peter doesn't believably portray Treat's descent into despair -- it all happens to quickly. And the brothers' final bit of action, doing something on the floor, can't be seen by most of the audience.

When Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre premiered Orphans, it was labeled a "bone-crunching" production. The current show may not be quite that athletic (with the audience practically in the actors' laps, that may be preferred), but it's still an energetic exploration of male bonding. To get the full effect of Kessler's powerful tale of brotherly love, get there early enough to sit in the front row. And ignore the gawkers at the window.



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Revised: October, 2007
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