Difficult history is well-told in Family Theater's 'Orphan Train'

April 11, 2014 

Hailey Jeffers plays one of many orphans sent from the East Coast to the Midwest, and Jason Haws play one of the adoptive parents in Olympia Family Theater’s production of “Orphan Train.”


The Orphan Train has rolled into The Washington Center for the Performing Arts with stories of heartbreak and joy in the form of a play by Aurand Harris presented by Olympia Family Theater and ably directed by Olympia High School teacher Kathy Dorgan.

Between 1853 and 1929, approximately 250,000 orphaned children from the streets of New York City were loaded onto box cars and shipped to towns out west to be adopted by pioneers. Some found good homes and some were placed with families that just wanted free labor. Many siblings were separated, never to find each other again. Their deeply affecting stories range from overwhelming joy to heartbreak, and everything in between.

Harris’s play tells 10 of these stories in vignettes with a combination of narration and performance by a cast of two dozen actors ranging in age from 7 to 65, many of whom have extensive stage experience and a few of whom have no acting experience but act like seasoned pros.

Mary (Emma Haws, a veteran at age 11) is adopted by the mean-spirited Mrs. Herndon (Jennie Jenks) who arbitrarily changes her name to Rebecca and forces her to sleep in a damp root cellar with rodents. It is a heartbreaking story acted with great passion by both Haws and Jenks, and it ends on a more joyful note.

Maria (Maggie Neatherlin) cares for her infant sister after her dying mother made her promise they would never be separated. But she is unable to keep her promise when a mother who has lost a baby (Edsonya Charles) adopts the little sister but will not take her teenage sibling.

Frank (played with sassy bravado by Annabelle Sampson, a third-grader at Hansen Elementary now in her fifth play with OFT) is the toughest kid on the train. He’s adopted by a couple who needs a tough boy to work on their hard-scrabble farm. The only trouble is, Frank is really a girl pretending to be a boy to survive on the streets, and she is just as sweet as her male persona is tough. What happens when her adoptive parents find out is very touching, and Sampson’s ability to convincingly become such different characters is laudable.

Lucky (Nick Hayes) is another tough, streetwise kid, a knife-wielding pickpocket whose own instinct toward self-preservation turns out to be his worst failing. Nick has performed in “Oklahoma” at Seattle’s 5th Avenue Theatre and is known locally for his performance as Tiny Tim at Capital Playhouse. His sister Kate, also a young veteran from the Capital Playhouse stage, plays Pegeen, a kind Irish lass. Actually the whole Hayes family – including parents Jill and Ned Hayes – are actors in this production.

These stories and others touch the audience’s hearts. The stories are all true, and they present a realistic and never maudlin picture of a little-known part of American history. All are played out in front of two screens with outstanding line drawings, one of rolling hills and a train track with a small town in the distance, and the other of a train station. Onto these screens are projected both still and moving vintage images with portraits of the actors in period costumes cleverly superimposed on these scenes. The splendid scenes and projections are the work of Jill Carter. Costumes by Mishka Navarre contribute to the authenticity of the stories.

Among the more outstanding actors in this show are Jason Haws in a number of roles, including a drunk, a priest and a cowboy; and Keith Eisner as a farmer and an old man.

Running a mere 65 minutes with a 15-minute intermission, “Orphan Train” is an excellent show. I would recommend that teachers encourage their students to see it and that they build class projects studying the true history of the trains.

Orphan Train

When: 7 p.m. Friday, 1 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, plus 7 p.m. April 17 and 18, 1 and 4:30 p.m. April 19, and 1 p.m. April 20.

Where: The Washington Center for the Performing Arts black box, 512 Washington St. SE, Olympia.

Tickets: $10-$16 at olytix.org or 360-753-8586.

alec@alecclayton.com Check Alec’s blog at alecclayton.blogspot.com for reviews of other area theatrical productions.

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