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Theater Review: An "Orphan Train" loaded with talent

(Almost) all aboard!

Hailey Jeffers and Jason Haws in Olympia Family Theater's "Orphan Train." Photo credits: David Nowitz and Jill Carter for OFT

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Between 1853 and 1929, through both the American Civil War and World War I, the Orphan Train Movement shipped over a quarter of a million parentless children to the Midwestern states from overcrowded metropolises on the Eastern seaboard. Initiated by Calvinist minister Charles Loring Brace and his Children's Aid Society, these trains full of children and babies preceded the institutionalized foster care program by decades. You may never have heard of these Orphan Trains - they were new to my ears when Olympia Family Theater announced its season last year - but they're woven into the fabric of modern families. The present-day descendants of these children number upwards of two million.

History isn't the story of a solid mass of people drifting around the country like an ant colony. It's a quarter of a million individual stories, 12 of which are told in OFT's current production. The actors who embody these orphans are high-school-aged or younger so, as might be expected, the success of the play rests squarely on their shoulders. I've chided OFT in the past for demanding too little of its diminutive thespians. I've seen great performances from young actors over the years, most recently Liberty Evans-Agnew and company in To Kill a Mockingbird at Tacoma Little Theatre, so the bar has been and should be set high. This time around, OFT surpasses it with a number of stellar achievements.

Take for example, the actor playing "Frank." I'm tempted to include this performer's name here, but I won't as that would constitute a spoiler. Instead, let me say this actor guards a plot surprise by pulling off a feat most adult stars would find all but impossible. Then let's talk about the Hayes siblings, Kate and Nick. In the years since I first praised them as actors, I've come to know their family - all of whom appear in this show, including mom Jill's stage debut - as friends. Call me biased, but I think Kate's maligned outsider "Pegeen" and Nick's sticky-fingered "Lucky" are feisty, distinctive, fleshed-out personas revealing a professional-grade depth of research. Hailey Jeffers makes a memorable impression with nothing but facial expressions and gestures. Rachel Hodes builds on past work by finding the spirit of a spirited teen, her streetwise "Evie." There's quality work in each scene, so much that veteran actors like Jason Haws and Jennie Jenks (on point as an old crank) find themselves rather eclipsed here. I bet they can live with that.

This show isn't for small children. It contains emphatic words, but more to the point, it's monochromatic and talky. For patient older kids and grown-ups, though, Orphan Train is a well-produced, heartfelt display of dedication and talent. It takes what could've been a dry historical footnote, injects empathetic direction from Kathy Dorgan, and elicits the best from everyone involved.

ORPHAN TRAIN, 7 p.m. Thursday and Friday, 1 a.m. Saturday and Sunday, through April 20, Washington Center, 512 Washington St. SE, Olympia, $10-$16, 360.753.8586

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