Over its nearly 20-year history, Orphan Train has earned itself “History Theatre Classic” status. Coming in as an Orphan Train first-timer, I was a touch wary that this might be shorthand for “treacly crowd-pleaser.” While I’m probably not going to be first in line for future revivals, I’m pleased to report that my worries were mostly unfounded.
On the way out of the theater I overheard a woman comment that the show was good, but she didn’t see why they had to make it so sad. That seems an odd complaint to make about a play based on the true story of a trainload of parentless children whose fates rested on the whims of strangers picking them out of an auction-style lineup at whistle stops across the still-expanding American West. One presumes the generally uplifting Orphan Train could have been a far, far sadder experience had the creators tugged at a few different threads.
That isn’t to say that this show whitewashes what’s obviously a bittersweet and underexplored chapter in American history. Over the show’s two-plus hour run, the titular orphans are subjected to class discrimination, physical abuse, overt and institutional racism, separation anxiety, sexual intimidation, and heaping scoops of cynicism, among other obstacles. Still, for most of the parties involved, it beats the hell out of the alternative of life on the streets of New York.
How many stories are too many?
There’s obviously a compelling story to tell here. Many of them, in fact, and that proves a bit of a problem for the production. Along with explaining the origins of the orphan train itself, Patty Lynch’s script follows the lives of several riders, including a pair of star-crossed teenage lovers (Devon Cox and Ryan London Levin), two German siblings (Maia Hernandez and Peder Lindell) who rely on each other for strength, and a privileged young woman (Norah Long) eager to prove herself a worthy benefactor to these less-fortunate children.
With so many lives to explore, some of them are inevitably going to end up getting short shrift. The script tackles this challenge with varying degrees of success. The little girl who falls into an orphan’s fantasy of wealthy adoptive parents who spoil her at every turn, for instance, is wisely relegated mostly to comic relief. Several other characters with weightier arcs, though, suffer from the overstuffed nature of the play. Amanda (Lauren Bonner), the train’s sole black rider, endures multiple degrees of racism and communicates only in brief musical soliloquies. Amanda’s path to self-discovery after being taken in by T. Mychal Rambo’s thunderously charismatic blacksmith is theoretically one of the play’s most affecting elements, but her story comes in rushed glimpses that don’t allow either character the development they deserve.
To the credit of co-directors Ron Peluso and Anya Kremenetsky, the scenes we’re left with still pack plenty of visceral power, but it’s hard not to wonder how much harder they’d hit if they were given more room to breathe. Of course, giving more time to any particular storyline would require either cutting one of the others or extending the runtime further, neither of which is an especially appealing proposition. I suppose having too much story to tell is a better problem than having too little.
In praise of child actors, and others
Narrative overload aside, Orphan Train is an engaging, entertaining piece of work buoyed by solid performances from a sprawling cast. The acting is especially impressive for a show that relies so heavily on its child actors, all of whom prove up to the task and then some. The adult cast is stacked with local theater veterans, with Peter Thomson’s prickly but kind-hearted preacher, Terry Hempleman’s casually sadistic deputy sheriff, and Rambo’s patient craftsman making especially strong impressions.
As for the musical element, I can’t say I left the theater humming any of Charlie Maguire’s songs, but in the moment they’re as poignant, rousing and spirited as they need to be. I’m especially fond of the “Dog” number, but then I’m usually a sucker for a rowdy punch-‘em-up in a musical.
A big part of Orphan Train’s appeal is reflected in Gunther Gullickson’s set design. It’s a relatively spare set - a barnwood backdrop furnished with various combinations of wooden crates and rudimentary furniture - that serves believably as a New York City side street, a village square, a general store, a horse barn, and the titular train, among other locations. A busier set could well have been a distraction, while anything much simpler would make for a less immersive experience. Gullickson strikes a delicate balance that’s indicative of a play that needs to be a lot of things all at once: a history lesson, a musical, a romance, a drama, a comedy and a tragedy.
It doesn’t all come together perfectly, but enough of it coheres that it’s easy to understand why the crowds keep coming back.