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Friday, October 24, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 49.0° F  Fog/Mist
Arts
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Broom Street Theater's Orphan Train is a tender tale of kids struggling to survive on the brink of the 20th century
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Orphan Train features a host of up-and-coming local talent.
Credit:N.E. Craig

In the late 1800s, before there was foster care, orphans were thrown into jail or locked away in "educational asylums." Some remained hopelessly entangled in crime and low-wage jobs. Others headed west in search of opportunity. Broom Street Theater's Orphan Train (through May 18) offers a tender portrayal of New York City children who hopped a westbound train, hoping for a better life.

Prior to the performance, a black-and-white photo montage was projected against a screen while melancholy bluegrass music played in the background. Pictures of children from the orphan migration lent some historical background and created a poignant atmosphere for the plot to follow. Luke Kokinos' lighting provides a smooth transition from slideshow to stage and creates an evocative atmosphere for the play itself.

The production is thrust into action with brother-and-sister duo, Martin and Mary, caught up in a web of trouble. Their sick mother is ill equipped to care for them after their father's passing, so the two take to stealing food. Amid a high-energy chase between Martin, Mary, and local police, we are introduced to Sarah, a delightfully sassy tomboy. She poses as a young boy to sell newspapers, giving a cop false directions before accidentally running into the reverend of the Children's Aid Society, a faith-based orphanage in New York City. All three of the ragamuffins soon find themselves at the orphanage.

We don't get an in-depth look at any of these orphans' backgrounds. Instead, we watch them try to navigate the overcrowded and underfunded orphanage. In the opening scene, the play's warmth is palpable. The chemistry between Martin and Mary, alongside Sarah's cheeky spunk, lends the performance an endearing honesty. The theater's small size also created a sense of intimacy, which enhanced my emotional involvement with the play. As the Children's Aid Society sends the kids westward, romances blossom and friendships grow. The play follows these relationships as they maturate through the years, which makes for genuinely touching moments and some sappy ones as well. Although the love stories did add sparks to the performance, Orphan Train could have had fewer saccharine one-liners.

Although the set undergoes minimal changes between the train ride's scenery shifts, the Victorian-style costuming makes the production seem like an authentic look at the late 1800s. Boasting an array of subtle-toned rag dresses and breeches, Kay Hoel brings the characters to life.

Director Lindsey Hoel-Neds does a superb job of illuminating the sentimental tales of the orphans. I was touched by the production's sincerity and impressed by the young actors' skillful characterizations. Orphan Train features a host of up-and-coming local talent, including Vimala Hile, Diego Nieto, Frances Olson, Elizabeth Robbins and Alexandra Soglin. We are bound to see more of these young actors soon.

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