By Molly Gilmore Although they’ve been the subject of two plays, a musical and a recent popular novel, the orphan trains of the late 19th and early 20th centuries remain a little-known piece of American history.
That knowledge gap — along with the powerful stories of children searching for families — inspired Olympia Family Theater’s production of “Orphan Train.”
“‘Orphan Train’ is about a whole period of American history that I had no idea had existed,” director Kathy Dorgan said. “That’s the thing I wanted to share with people.”
For more than 70 years, New York City’s “surplus children,” as they were called, boarded trains heading west. About 200,000 children rode the trains, with some finding happy homes and others being treated as servants. The program was the start of the foster care system.
“As somebody who works with children, I was startled by the statistics in the story and also moved by the resiliency of many of these kids,” said Dorgan, Olympia High School’s drama teacher and the artistic director of Creative Theatre Experience. “Some of the stories are profoundly sad — kids who were separated from their brothers and sisters, who were taken from their parents and basically went to farm families to work on the farm — and others are really uplifting.”
“The interesting part to me was that I didn’t know anything about this period of history,” said Jen Ryle, artistic director of the theater company, which does one play each season with an educational component.
The OFT production combines playwright Aurand Harris’ “Orphan Train” with some scenes from playwright Deborah Craig’s “Orphan Trains.” The stories are true and composites taken from accounts by riders.
“Each vignette begins with a monologue from a child,” Dorgan said. “The monologues and the stories of the kids are pulled from the archives of the Children’s Aid Society and journal entries and interviews with orphan-train riders.”
Set designer Jill Carter has provided a historically accurate backdrop with projections of period photos. The play also uses period music.
The casting adds an extra layer of texture to the production, too, with three families involved: local actor and teacher Jason Haws and his daughter Emma, who is in fifth grade at Pioneer Elementary School; Carlene Crawford, a senior at Olympia High School, and her brother Jaron, a sophomore; and the Hayes family.
“Our family is really enjoying the theatrical experience together,” said Ned Hayes, who is appearing in the play with his wife, Jill; his daughter Kate, an eighth-grader at Nova School; and his son Nick, a fifth-grader at Olympia Waldorf School. “This is the first time that Jill has ever acted on any stage anywhere, so it has been an exciting new adventure for her.”
“The whole thing is about families,” Dorgan said. “I thought that would be a nice piece. It’s quite lovely to see them all.” ‘Orphan Train’
What: The play tells the stories of a group of orphans who leave New York City on a train bound for the Midwest in search of new families.
When: 7 p.m. Friday plus April 10, 11, 17 and 18; 1 p.m. Saturday and Sunday plus April 12, 13, 19 and 20; and 4:30 p.m. April 19
Where: The Black Box at The Washington Center for the Performing Arts, 512 Washington St. SE, Olympia
Tickets: $16 for adults; $12 for students, seniors and military; $10 for children 12 and younger. For the April 10 show, pay what you can (by cash or check on the day of the show).
More information: olyft.org or 360-570-1638, or for tickets, olytix.com or 360-753-8586
Ages: The company recommends the play for ages 8 and older.