Any New Yorker of a certain age shudders at that name–and no, not because it was Geraldo Rivera who brought it to our attention.
Willowbrook was a place of horrors all on its own.
As I was watching Amy and the Orphans—Andy and the Orphans as it actually was this afternoon–when “Willowbrook” was mentioned, there was a gasp from about half the audience. That’s how strong the cultural memories of Willowbrook are.
Some few of us in the audience this afternoon may even have had family members who were warehoused there. In the drama, Edward Barbonell’s character Andy (or Amy, when Jamie Brewer plays the part) was, too. Amy/Andy has Down Syndrome and is played, appropriately enough, by actors with DS themselves.
Even if we in the audience had no direct experience of Willowbrook, enough of us had heard of its horrors for our reaction to have been audible on stage–thanks, in part, to Rivera, who won a Peabody with his 1972 expose of the horrors suffered there.
Author Lindsey Ferrentino explains, in Playbill, what she is trying to accomplish through this ninety-minute play, which is running at Roundabout’s Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theater on 46th Street, half a block from Times Square. She explains that her aunt:
Amy was born with Down syndrome during a time in this country when medical professionals told my grandparents they’d just given birth to a “Mongolian idiot” who would never learn to read, write or possibly even sit up on her own. My grandparents followed medical advice to place her into a state-funded institution.
Amy did learn all of those things the doctors said she could not, according to her niece, just as many with DS do. Remembering this and having grown up with the impact of Amy’s removal on the family, Ferrentino’s intent in this play is to show the impact of the separation of a DS child (or any child, for that matter) from a family on a family–and she does so quite deftly.
Ferrentino shows the parents, soon after the birth of Amy/Andy, making the decision to move the child to a home on Staten Island (which we learn later was Willowbrook), where they will visit monthly, along with their other two children, generally taking Amy/Andy out to the movies–developing in her/him what will become a lifelong obsession with film but firming up few real relations with her/his family.
Most of the play details the return to Long Island of the other two children after their parents’ deaths. They pick up Amy/Andy (and her/his aide) so that the three of them can attend a memorial service for their father, the last parent to die.
Blinded, in part, by their own feelings of guilt, neither of Amy/Andy’s siblings can see that Amy/Andy has developed a life that satisfies her/him. Initially at Willowbrook (for years, clearly) but now is in a much more reasonable home, one where she/he has an outside job cleaning the popcorn machine in a movie house, has a girlfriend and a community that, now, that makes her/him comfortable. Neither of the siblings, in point of fact, can see much beyond themselves, probably a result of growing up in a family thrown into dysfunction by that tragically accepted medical advice. They truly are orphans and alone; Amy/Andy has developed a new family.
The play ends with a speech by Amy/Andy made up of movie lines, including Marlon Brando’s “I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody” from On the Waterfront (written by Budd Schulberg). Without Willowbrook and the oppressive attitudes that carried even beyond the 1970s, she/he certainly could have been. Should have been.
Amy and the Orphans (Andy and the Orphans) makes that point exceptionally well.