Steppenwolf Theatre Company's exploration of orphaned lives

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Orphans Play by Lyle Kessler. Directed by Gary Sinise. On the surface, ``Orphans'' seems to be located somewhere among the terrains of David Mamet, Sam Shepard, and even Harold Pinter -- terrains in which an element of enigma heightens dramatic tension. Although playwright Lyle Kessler rides the currents of contemporary theatrical expression, he uses them for his own purposes and charts his own course.

The results may not appeal to all tastes. However, there can be no question about the excellence of the production Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Company has mounted for Off Broadway playgoers.

The new drama, at the Westside Arts Theatre/Upstairs, presents a not unfamiliar phenomenon of male relationships. Two of the title's three orphans are the brothers Treat and Philip (Terry Kenney and Kevin Anderson). Treat is a vicious, foul-mouthed, small-time criminal whose petty thefts and muggings support the household that he and Philip share. As much jailer as protector, the bullying Treat keeps his simple-minded younger sibling a prisoner in their North Philadelphia dwelling.

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Treat imagines he has hit ``real pay dirt'' when he arrives home with Harold (John Mahoney), a very intoxicated stranger he has picked up at a bar and whom he intends holding for ransom. The young hoodlum's incompetence as a criminal becomes quickly apparent when a sobered Harold frees himself and begins taking over the premises. Harold is a big-time securities thief for whom the Philadelphia row house can serve as a tempo rary hideout. The second act transforms the modest residence from chaotic shambles to simple but agreeable d'ecor -- a transformation nicely effected by set and lighting designer Kevin Rigdon.

Harold proves to be an orphan with a difference. Under his suave influence, his two hosts acquire smart new clothes. Harold's presence, sympathetic kindness, and encouragement open a whole new world for the eagerly responsive Philip. Treat, on the other hand, grows increasingly resentful of the interloper who was to have been his victim, and he substantially fails in his test assignment as a securities thief.

At whatever level of emotion, ``Orphans'' can be ebulliently and even wildly theatrical under Gary Sinise's direction. The actors respond with accomplished ease to the play's shifting moods of farciality, menace, violence, reflectiveness, and genuine tenderness. Mr. Anderson augments his sensitive performance as Philip with some breathtaking leaps and bounds.

Mr. Kinney spares no attitude or gesture to make Treat a sinister young hood. Mr. Mahoney's Harold takes easy command of the household and radically changes its atmosphere until he arrives at the inevitable fate the author has prepared for him.

For this spectator, ``Orphans'' finally overextends the use of Freudian symbols with which Mr. Kessler seeks to illuminate his characters. But this does not diminish the genuine anguish of the climactic moments in this bizarre exploration of orphaned lives. The production has been costumed by Cookie Gluck. Property designer Lori S. Sugar receives a deserved program credit, considering her contributions to Act I litter. There is extensive rock and jazz incidental music by various groups.

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