BWW Review: ORPHAN TRAIN at History Theatre

Among the many vital functions of theater are these: to give voice to the voiceless, to tell stories that are lost to time, and to give audiences empathic access to lives they never personally intersect.* Saint Paul's History Theatre scores well on these aims with their remounting of ORPHAN TRAIN, set in 1889, which first premiered as a commission by the theater in 1997. The story is by Patty Lynch, with music and lyrics by Charlie Maguire.

I didn't know this, but between 1854 and 1929 in this country more than 150,000 orphan children (and perhaps as many as 300,000) were sent by train from the slums of New York City and other eastern cities to the Midwest and the frontier, to be taken in by farm families and others, some as cherished adoptees, and some as unpaid workers in varied circumstances, not all of them happy.

The production at History Theatre certainly qualifies as educational theater, and is marked by some of the earnest and straightforward dramaturgy common to such efforts. But to its great credit, it is also tuneful and lively and does not shy away from the harsher realities of the stories it tells. Yes, there is a love story; yes, there is a pair of siblings who are separated; yes, there is a young woman who is transformed by suffering into an activist and ally. But there is also an orphan girl of color, traumatized and silent, and an oppositional adolescent boy taken in by an isolated bachelor farmer with a badge and sadistic tendencies, who beats and abuses him to the point of death.

The cast is anchored by some adult pros, but dominated by child actors in an ensemble that sings and acts well, without recourse to cutesiness. Simple, effective and varied choreography by Emily Michaels King helps give the tale (and the fight scenes) some style. Songs are underscored with delicacy, using mandolin, fiddle, bass, guitar and piano, played by an offstage quartet led by Andrew Fleser. The directing duo of Ron Peluso (History Theatre's longtime Artistic Director) and newer Artistic Associate Anya Kremenetsky ably weave the elements together into two very watchable acts with swift transitions.

The standout performer is Devon Cox in the role of Sally Ann, who is well matched in the romantic lead by Ryan Levin as Aloysius, a brash Irish lad. Despite how capable these two are, they can't quite make one melodramatic scene work: trimming the ghost scene would strengthen the whole.

History Theatre has a clear mission-to create and tell stories that explore Minnesota's past and the diverse American experience-and has staged more than 100 world premieres since its founding in 1978. Given current realities around refugee and immigrant families relocating to the Twin Cities, this show provides a timely reminder that there is Midwest precedent for the kind of bravery and pluck it takes to make one's way in a whole new place. It's gratifying to see mixed audiences of school children and retirees in sold out houses, for the monthlong run ending December 18.

*There are plenty of additional worthy goals: sheer entertainment, wonder at human ingenuity and spirit, delight, surprise, open-hearted laughter, joy in human creativity, advocating for change, bringing attention to eternal questions, to name a few...

photo credit: Rick Spauldin

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From This Author Karen Bovard

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