Friday, May 15, 2009

Child actors stand out in story of 1900s orphans

published in The News Tribune, May 15, 2009

Tacoma Little Theatre is producing the Aurand Harris play “The Orphan Train” with three performances only this weekend at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday.

I attended a pre-tech rehearsal, no lights or sets, minus the planned projections and with only one actor in costume. Even that bare-bones performance was mesmerizing.

There are 10 child and youth actors and seven adults, all under the capable direction of Nancy Wilkinson, and I was impressed at what a terrific job of acting the youths turned in – and not just because of their youth, but because of their ability to act.

Set in 1914, the play is based on actual stories of the “orphan trains” that ran from New York to the Midwest beginning in the first decade of the 20th century. In 1852 the Rev. Charles Loring Brace came up with the idea of gathering children off the streets and the overcrowded orphanages in the slums of New York and taking them to farm country out west where they could be adopted into families. In Harris’ play nine stories are told as representative of those of the thousands of orphans who rode the trains.

The orphans sit on boxes in a choreographed frozen dance, moving only during scene changes as one by one they step forward and tell their stories, alternating between acting and talking directly to the audience.

The first story is that of Mary (Kelty Pierce) who is taken in by Mrs. Herndon (Sandi Brown, who also plays an unnamed woman in another scene). Pierce plays Mary as a sweet, frightened young girl who immediately elicits sympathy from the audience. Mrs. Herndon is an abusive woman who wants Mary as a slave child. She treats her little better than chattel. I thought Brown overplayed this nasty woman and that she came across as laughable caricature, which I did not think was a good interpretation.

Among the more notable actors was Alex Newman for her ability to play two very different characters. First she plays a street urchin who pretends to be a boy as her only way to survive, and we see her change from a hardcore street kid to a soft and tender young woman. In her other role she is another streetwise kid, this time a girl whose survival technique involves flaunting her sexiness. Again she changes from hard to sweet, but more slowly this time. You can see that it’s going to be difficult for her to learn how to behave in polite society. This is excellent acting. The couple who adopt her, James (Colton Finch) and Emily (Rachael Boyer), are also convincing in their roles.

Other noteworthy performances come from Mason Wilkerson as Raymond, who has been crippled from birth, or as long as he can remember, and from Kelsey Harrison as Pegeen, who is adopted by a loving and proudly eccentric old man (Curtis Beech); she is loved in her new home but tormented at her school because she’s Irish.

Since I don’t have space to write about all of the actors, I would at least like to name them. Those not already mentioned are: Josh Bode, Ryan Martin, Mike McGrath, Harrison Deatherage, Courtney Rainer, Amy Nygard, Kerry Bringman, Bob Yount, Jefri Peters, Naara Toole and Tori Dunlap.

Since the plight of many of the orphans was harsh and sad, this play has the potential of being maudlin or overly dramatic, but that potential pitfall is prevented by an honest and simple script, and by competent direction and acting. Finally, these are not all sad stories; most are uplifting.

WHEN: 8 p.m. today and Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday
WHERE: Tacoma Little Theatre, 210 N I St., Tacoma
INFORMATION: 253-272-2281,

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