Following on the heels of their inaugural production Dolores, Q44 Theatre have chosen to stage Lyle Kessler’s influential 1983 play Orphans. While a change in focus is evident from the outset, moving from an all female two-hander to a cast of three men, there is a clear theme of sibling relationships and lack of parental care running through the season so far.

The siblings at the centre of this story are a pair of brothers, Treat (Ashley McKenzie) and Phillip (Mark Davis), young men who were orphaned at an early age. Older brother Treat is a petty criminal, stealing tins of tuna and jars of mayonnaise to provide for Phillip, but over-protectively keeping him locked away in their run-down Philadelphia home without the benefits of education or human contact. Thanks to Treat, Phillip believes he has allergies so severe that he will die from breathing the air outside and he has to hide the books he cherishes while circling words he doesn’t understand.

Davis’ performance of the innocent Phillip is the clear highlight of this production. Playing a character of limited intellect can be a treacherous tightrope to balance upon, but Davis captures beautifully the naivety of Phillip, combined with his desire to learn and experience the world outside their apartment. His portrayal lends the character a sweetly inquisitive nature and an uninhibited way with words.

When Treat kidnaps drunken gangster Harold (Gareth Reeves), the enigmatic victim himself an orphan, recognises a need for guidance in the boys and after easily escaping their capture, puts himself in the position of their father, tutor and role model. He attempts to tame Treat’s aggressive, antagonistic nature, while he seeks to educate Phillip and encourage him to explore outside the prison of his childhood.

As Treat, Ashley McKenzie is full of bristling, angry energy that counters nicely the sweet natured Phillip and measured Harold. Treat’s domineering, yet caring personality is well captured and McKenzie pushes through a convincing Philly accent, but considering that Davis doesn’t use one and that it naturally garbles clear language, it’s perhaps unnecessary.

Reeves puts in a masterful portrayal of inebriation in his opening scene, providing some unexpected moments of humour, before developing a confident, paternal air and strong presence as Harold nurtures the brothers. The seemingly small gap between Reeves’ age and that of the other two actors detracts somewhat however from the essence of the story, making it harder to see him as a true ‘father’ and man whose tragic lessons in life inform the path that he guides the young men down. Harold’s touching story of survival on the streets as a paperboy seems anachronistic for Reeves’ age. Ultimately it’s what perhaps also limits the ability of this production to have a devastating affect on its audience. It’s hard to get a true sense of the elder statesman here.

A second visit to the Q44 theatre is already showing that the space has good versatility, providing a wonderfully immersive feeling as we sit inside the walls of Treat and Phillip’s home. The dilapidated, almost squat-like abode transforms into a warmly decorated home as Harold puts his touch on the place. Director (and company founder) Gabriella Rose Carter’s decision to forego an interval and redress the set in front of the audience is a mistake however. The seating at Q44 is unforgiving over a two hour stretch and the time it takes to re-set the playing space for Act Two pushes beyond the limits of what it’s fair to expect an audience to wait, and puts unnecessary pressure on the performers.

There are also some confusing design choices in this production. While a costume designer isn’t credited, the wardrobe of the three men seems to span a range of eras, so when combined with references to classic Hollywood movies and The Price Is Right, a perplexing ‘outside-of-time’ feeling occurs. Only consultation with the program provides clarity that these characters live in 1985.

Carter’s technique-based performance style is evident again in this production, providing moments of hyperrealism and heightened tension that really add to the appreciation of this worthy script. It’s clear this play has been chosen for it’s ability to showcase performance craft and that is certainly what has been achieved.

Two shows in, Q44 are setting a strong standard for their productions, that’s creating excitement for what the remainder of this first season will bring. Easily as good as the best of Melbourne’s current crop of independent theatre, Orphans is worth the trip down to the dark end of Swan Street.