Thursday, May 2, 2019

REVIEW: "Orphan Train" at Will of the Wind Productions

Hannah Burns and Brady Matthews. Photo by Josh Aguirre.
by Shane Strawbridge

“Everyone comes from someplace.”

In Will of the Wind’s world-premiere production of Orphan Train by Sylvia Ashby, we know the “someplace” where people are coming. We know where they’ll likely end up. There are no real surprises to speak of or things to keep us guessing. The thing that keeps us keyed in, however, is the joy in watching two young actors, Brady Matthews and Hannah Burns, coming into their own in front of our eyes.

In the late 1890s, the Orphan Train arrives in a small town in North Central Texas. On board are three leftovers: Katrinka Pavelka and brother Anton are European immigrant orphans who desperately want to remain together; Mike Macys is a newsboy who lived on the streets of the city. All three of them are searching for a new home. Whether or not they find it is up to the townspeople of Plainsville.

Although the drama in Ashby’s script never gets too high (settling instead for a feel-good aesthetic), she manages to pepper in parallels to contemporary American issues. The threat of the siblings being separated from each other calls to mind the migrant children still being torn away from their families at the southern border. More than one citizen of the town is guilty of xenophobic leanings, with farmer Walt Hinkle exclaiming, “Where are the American orphans? We want Americans!” and children yelling at Katrinka to “Talk right, like everyone else.” We also witness how children are exploited in terms of labor. For a play that doesn’t keep you on the edge of your seat, it certainly does make you think.

The cast and crew under the steady direction of Richard Privitt do well with Ashby’s script. Lynn Elms as town elder Jessie Weston is a ray of sunshine in the dusty old town—a sweet, kind, almost angelic figure. Phillip Huval as Ray Rafferty looks to have stepped directly from the yellowing pages of a Louis Lamour paperback, and it plays the part to good effect. Kasey Colwell provides a pure and soft tone as teacher Miss Laura Sanders. Patrick Ryan Jones and Callie Combest throw themselves with reckless abandon into their stock roles of “evil-adopted-parents.” Set design by Richard Privitt serves the play without a hint of calling attention to itself. Costumes by Patti Campbell and Diane Bancroft are functional and straightforward, transporting us directly to 1890.

But really, we’re watching this show for the young actors. As older brother Anton, Brady Matthews nails his eastern European accent and the protective nature of a sibling that isn’t sure what to do now that he’s the one to look up to. As sister Katrinka, Hannah Burns isn’t as successful with her dialect, but she more than makes up for it with the look of sheer terror she hides behind her eyes from the moment she walks onto the stage. Her transformation from wounded animal to acceptance is the heart of the play, and she walks the line steadily.

Will of the Wind is to be commended for tackling a world premiere play in their inaugural season. While many other theatres in their position would stick to the tried and true workhorses of the American theatre circuit, WOTW has demonstrated their commitment not only to the arts in Lubbock but to the growth and development of new plays. Every play was a new play once that someone took a chance on. And if that isn’t enough for you, I can only recount the words of Plainsville know-it-all Beulah Clemmons:

“At least it’s not Oklahoma.”

Orphan Train continues through May 5th at LHUCA’s Firehouse Theatre. For tickets and more information, visit the Will of the Wild website.

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