'Orphan Train' Jumps The Tracks With Too Much Melodrama

By Bridgette M. Redman

Like all stock melodramas, the good are in peril, the evil twirl their mustaches, and the villains get hissed during the bows.

"Orphan Train" has little that is authentic about it. It is a blatant appeal to surface emotions that is predictable and has no shades away from black and white. The actors in the What A Do production of Dennis North's script do as much as they can with the shallowness of the story and the skilled tech staff try to bring it to life, but even those talents aren't able to resuscitate a tale with no surprises or depth of character.

The story's title takes its name from the Orphan Train Movement of 1853 to 1929 where about 250,000 children were taken from the streets or big city institutions out west on trains and given to pioneer families. It is not a play, though, that is going to give you many accurate facts about the movement - either the good it did or the abuse that took place. It focuses on the abuse of a particular couple who used the movement for personal gain, though we never really learn why or how they got involved. The audiences are to accept them as the villains because who could be more villainous than those who would sell orphans for personal gain? No mention is made of the actual problems that beset the movement.

Though the title refers to the orphan train, that part of the play exists merely to provide a secondary antagonist. The real storyline follows Netty and Tyler, a farm couple struggling against poverty, drought and the challenges of creating a family in a time of high infant mortality. The opening scene with What A Do resident actor Ashlyn Nicole Shawver immediately tips the hand that the play will be heavy with mysticism, and the hand of God will do more to move the plot forward than the actions of the characters.

The relationship between Shawver and Joshua Olgine's Tyler is an intense one, and one of the few strengths of the play. They demonstrate well the strains that life puts on a relationship and how love struggles in the face of adversity and tragedy. Their chemistry and energy create several moments that lift the play above average and generate some true emotion in a script that shuns authenticity.

Dave Stubbs' J.C., Lars J. Loofboro's Rufus and Gail Snyder's Hypacia make up the rest of a warm family eking out their existence on the farm. North clearly wants us to love these characters and gives them only the most gentle of flaws. The team of actors makes a valiant effort at providing more depth than the script creates. They give the audience plenty of reasons to enjoy their interactions and to root for them as times get tough.

Sam Friia's Conrad, the local banker and loan holder, practically sneers in every scene. It is amazing that his business survived in a small town as he was clearly out to ruin all of his customers. It is an almost modern condemnation of a capitalism that cares for nothing but profit - something far more common in this century than in the time and place of "Orphan Train."

Averi Beck, last seen on What A Do's stage doing a stunning job as Amy in "Little Women," returns as a guardian angel. She moves well and is sufficiently spooky. Director Randy Wolfe provides her with special lighting, sound effects and staging that creates the most dramatic effect.

Kristin Marie Stelter and Adam Bielby play the aptly named Mr. and Mrs. Leech. They leave no doubt from their first lines that, like Friia, they are the villains of the piece. They never try to make us even slightly sympathetic to them, nor give us any reason to suspect they are ever motivated by anything in life other than greed. They are the Snidley Whiplashes whose victims are orphans and those families longing for children and suffering from their own personal losses.

As in most What A Do shows, the production values are high. The technical staff fully commits to telling this hackneyed story. Olgine's set is highly functional, Cory Kalkowski's lighting is dramatic, and Wade King keeps busy with a variety of sound effects that tell the story and evoke an emotional response. Nancy King's costumes capture the time period and delineate the differences in geography and class among the 17 actors and 34 characters.

Most of the remaining characters are stereotypes of one form or another, filling out an idea of the hardships of life for pioneers, farmers and those who settled the West. The church ladies were snooty, the menfolk drank moonshine, and the minister moved in and out of people's lives with Bible quotes.

North makes things fairly clear by the end of act one how things will be resolved for the main characters, and the second act is merely a showcase for the villains and a chance to raise questions of a mystical and sometimes spiritual nature.

The ending is provided with a classic deus ex machina, one that stretches any sort of credibility. Even in a season where we cheer on George the angel getting his wings and believe in Santa Claus, we still feel cheated by miracles if they are telegraphed too soon and the humans involved are called upon to give little in return for them.

"Orphan Train" feels less like a miracle that renews the heart and more of an emotionally manipulative National Enquirer story.

REVIEW:

'Orphan Train'

What A Do Theatre, 4071 W. Dickman Road, Springfield. 8 p.m. Dec. 5, 6, 7, 13, 14 and 3 p.m. Dec. 7. $20. 269-282-1953. http://www.whatado.org

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