Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley
Homeward Bound: An Orphan Train Journey
Also see Eddie's review of Chicago
An extensive multimedia presentation precedes the play, using scores of photographs from the mid-nineteenth century along with voiceovers and music to educate us about the hundreds of thousands of immigrants descending from around the globe mostly into New York. We also learn of the resulting plight of thousands of orphaned, abandoned, and homeless children overflowing into New York's rough and ready streets. One minister, Charles Loring Brace, took it upon himself to do something about this and eventually established the first Orphan Train to send these innocent children to waiting families. With pictures of these desolate kids on three screens before us, we hear a church choir pleadingly sing:
The play then essentially becomes the journey of six young girlsall actual peoplewho in 1910 are being sent on a train to California. Accompanying them is an African-American woman, Jane Smith, once an orphan train kid herself (after first having escaped from slave owners via the "Underground Train" with her family to New York). The six, multinational girls are there for various reasons (e.g., recently dead parents from the flu or a fire, abandoned by a widowed dad who can no longer accept child-rearing responsibility, picked up by police as a street urchin pick-pocket). Bit by bit, we learn their stories and their personalities as the train trudges along. Each is instructed to prepare an introduction to be performed once they arrive in towns, and we see them work on a song, story, dance, a hand jive, or even recitation of a Bible verse. Their mixed heritages (and the U.S. being a melting pot) are highlighted when one begins to sing "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" in her native tongue and when we soon hear several other language versions joining in. As the miles tick on, we watch the girls and Jane become a family, however temporary, with its own early rivals and quarrels turning into genuine, caring bonds. When they finally begin to stop in towns from Missouri to California, unseen (by us) prospective families are waiting to give them the once-over, with some families hoping to adopt a child and others just seeking an extra pair of hands for the garden, household, or other labor. As girls are picked or not picked, we see the effects on all.
The young actresses, fourth graders through high schoolers, come to this premiere with already accomplished resumes, having performed on many sorts of local stages. That experience shows in each of their properly accented renditions of young Irish, German, Hungarian, and Japanese travelers. Whether playing the bully, the shy, the scared, or the so-sweet-you-just-want-to-hug-her, each does so believably and without any script flaw. As Jane Smith, Joyce Taylor is the mother hen who shows understanding and heart and clearly portrays the fact that this is both a job and a calling to help these girls find a home.
Much information is relayed in Ms. Cassetta's script, and the extensive slide show in the beginning is book-ended with a rather long denouement where we learn in detail the women each girl and Jane become in 1937. The story is fascinating, and its telling is important. However, the production often feels more like a Ken Burns documentary or a school presentation than a stage drama. We are observing girls chatter and tell stories as they are mostly sitting horizontally in chairs across the stage (grouped as train seats), all often augmented throughout with projected photographs and period songs. The tone is often quite didactic and sometimes close to a Sunday School lesson as over and again we and the girls are reminded that God has a plan and a family for them. These girls' rainbow-like endings are wonderful to hear, but we have to wonder how many of the 250,000 displaced did not have it so good.
And, as is often the case in any world premiere play, there appears to be ways to make some cuts that might provide a steadier pace and a greater impact. This is especially true for the overly long beginning and ending multimedia presentations and perhaps for the first act's train travel from New York to the first town stop where not a lot happens. Eliminating the intermission and tightening the story might result in a production that gives this important story a bit more momentum and energy and makes it more portable to be told on school and community center stages around the country.
In the end, Homeward Bound needs to be heard, especially in this current political climate where immigrant issues sound as if they are a recent curse and not the very foundation on which this country is built. And just how many of those voices now ranting about how immigrants are ruining our country actually may have their own roots in one of these Orphan Train children?
The Tabard Theatre Company's Homeward Bound: An Orphan Train Journey continues at Theatre on San Pedro Square, 29 North San Pedro Street, San Jose through October 11, 2015. Tickets are available at www.tabardtheatre.org or by calling 408-679-2330.