Review: “Orlando Rising” by Earl Lewin at Church Hill Theatre

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Cast of “Orlando Rising”: Back Row – Alyson ( Jean Leverage); Orlando (Tom Dorman); Police Officer (Eddie Dorman); Jack, (Howard Mesick) Seated – Wally (Chris Rogers); Ruth (Christine Kinlock); Nana (Kathy Jones) In Front – Young Wally (Aaron Sensenig ), his friend Dick (John Crook).

Do you remember the day John Kennedy was killed? “Orlando Rising,” a new play by Earl Lewin, depicts what happens in one family whose own domestic drama starts to unfold on the day the president is assassinated.

Based on a true story, “Orlando Rising” represents a change of pace for Lewin, whose previous plays have been predominantly light-hearted whodunits with a generous splash of humor. As he observes in his director’s note in the play’s program, this one examines the bottling up of “emotional dynamite” characteristic of the Victorian era. Those taboos began to break down in the late 1800s as shown in the plays of Henrik Ibsen, who shocked his contemporaries with his treatment of sexuality and equality. But many Victorian attitudes survived into the 1960s, when Lewin’s play is set. It is the survival of those taboos that fuels the drama of “Orlando Rising.”

When the play opens, it is the morning of Nov 22, 1963. Ruth and Wally are a young couple. Wally is getting ready to leave for his job at the local college where he teaches literature. Wally’s grandmother – his Nana – has come to stay with them for a few days. Her arrival stirs memories of Wally’s childhood, especially of his uncle Orlando, whose very name is painful for him to hear.

Wally and Ruth discuss ways to get Nana to talk about family secrets

Ruth pushes Wally to tell her about this mysterious uncle, asking what causes him so much anxiety and fear. We learn that Orlando is in a veterans’ hospital where he is being treated for mental illness – attributed by the family to a blow on the head he received while serving in World War I. She says there must be more to the story for the family to have erected the wall of silence and secrecy it has maintained about Orlando. Ruth urges Wally to confront Nana so they can know the truth.

Nana – played by Kathy Jones

Nana is predictably reluctant to tell the family secrets, even to her own grandson. A woman in her 90s, she holds fast to the belief that some things are best left unspoken. But under pressure, she reveals enough to make Wally begin to question many things he has taken for granted.

Finally, Wally has to leave for his classes, where he is teaching the plays of Ibsen. Shortly after his departure, Ruth receives news that Kennedy has been shot – and the whole emotional tone of the day changes. But that is only the first shock, as the next phone call comes with the news that Orlando has walked away from the hospital – and may be on his way to the old family home where Wally and Ruth now live. With that revelation, the trauma level rises dramatically – and the remainder of the play traces the consequences of the two physically unrelated but emotionally synchronous events of the assassination and the escape.

Chris Rogers, a familiar figure from Shore Shakespeare and local theater, plays Wally. He is just right for the academic earnestness of the college professor who loves his Nana but is frustrated by her old-fashioned reticence in discussing important family issues.  This makes it very believable when his surface calm begins to break under the emotional strain of the events.

Christine Kinlock, who was a delight as Hermia in this summer’s Shore Shakespeare production of “Midsummer Night’s Dream” is cast as Ruth.  She is very convincing as the socially progressive woman of the early ‘60s.  Somewhat more liberal than her professor husband, Ruth is embracing the evolving values of the new era and patiently encourages Wally to ask Nana for answers.

Kathy Jones, another veteran of CHT, takes the role of Nana.  Jones quickly establishes the dual character of Nana.  On the one hand, she is clearly a good, loving, kind, outgoing matriarch of the Victorian era.  On the other hand she is very insistent on hiding all the shameful family secrets and preserving respectable appearances as good Victorian matriarchs must.

Tom Dorman, who has numerous credits in local productions, takes the role of Orlando, the crazy uncle and Nana’s son.  The intellectual calm of the household vanishes and the energy level takes a quantum leap when he walks onstage.  He lives up to the label of “crazy” uncle, moving with ease from manic and scary to calm and apparently reasonable, but always manipulative.  Dorman has been good in previous roles but he has risen to a new high here.

Howard Messick plays Wally’s father Jack, and he makes the role memorable. He is a take-charge guy.  Clearly affectionate to his wife and children, Jack takes no nonsense from anyone outside that circle.  He handles the emergencies created by Orlando with swift practicality. A good job in a small role.

Young Wally (Aaron Sensenig) and his friend Dick (John Crook)

Aaron Sensenig and John Crook take the role of the young Wally and his friend Dick, seen in a flashback. The kids play and argue like normal kids, calling each other names in a way any parent will recognize.  But young Wally’s life is not just fun and games. He is terrified of his Uncle Orlando.  Jean Leverage comes across as a typical caring housewife and mother of the era in the role of Alyson, Wally’s mother. Both Leverage and Sensenig do a good job of switching from the happy mother and child to the scared child and frightened yet protective mother. Nice job. The cast is completed by Jan Eliassen and Eddie Dorman who do a credible job as two local policemen, swinging their billy clubs.

At dress rehearsal, the play seemed a bit slow starting, probably because of the large amount of back story being laid out in the first scene. There were also a couple of points where the dialogue seemed anachronistic – I’m not sure “share” or “lifestyle” were being used in their modern meanings at the time the play is set. But these are minor problems.

On the whole, Lewin has done a very good job of dramatizing the clash between the Victorian values Nana holds and the more open viewpoint of Ruth, while Wally’s viewpoint is somewhere in the middle.  This is used to good effect when Wally wants Nana to be open about Orlando’s condition and says there is no shame involved, but says that he feels uncomfortable about the emerging societal openness toward homosexuality.  Ruth calmly points out that you can’t have it both ways.  Here and at other points, Lewin’s play makes trenchant comments about life on the cusp of sweeping social change. After the dress rehearsal, Lewin said that, with only one exception, the events of the play and the reactions of the family members are true to the real-life story the play is based on.  We’re lucky to have talented playwrights such as Earl Lewin in our community.

The comfortable-looking set, stretching the entire width of the CHT stage, shows the main room of Wally’s family home. Unlike many productions at CHT, there’s nothing fancy here – just a solid, believable setting for the play. It’s an old family home – lived in for many generations – and the set conveys that well. Similarly, Barbi Bedell’s costume designs bring back the look and feel of the early sixties.  This is not yet the tie-dye, headband, and fringe-jackets with blue-jeans era.  It is more the buttoned-down tailored suit and middle-class version of the Kennedy style.

This is a mature play, with intellectual themes and dialogue, that will appeal to fans of serious drama.   However, young theatergoers will probably fidget.

“Orlando Rising” opens tomorrow, July 28, and runs through August 6. Performances are at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $15 – cash or check only – and can be picked up at the box office before the performance. Reservations are suggested. Call Church Hill Theatre at 410-556-6003.

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