Hope on the Rails

HART Theatre's 'Orphan Train' celebrates Christmas amid war

During the holidays, many theater companies fall back on perennial favorites. Sugarplum fairies dance across local stages. Miserly old Ebenezer Scrooge learns the value of giving from three ghosts just in time to wish Tiny Tim a Merry Christmas.

At Hillsboro's HART Theatre, the community theater company has been busy establishing its own tradition with an original show that speaks to the importance of celebrating the holidays through thick and thin.

For the third year, HART is performing 'The Orphan Train,' an original production by Beaverton playwright Ray Hale. Now in its third incarnation, the play tells the story of a group of children and their caretakers who are stranded on Christmas Eve during the London Blitz, the 1940 attack on the city by German forces.

During the blitz, many parents sent their children away from the city to the countryside in an effort to ensure that they were safe from the violence (C.S. Lewis' 'The Chronicles of Narnia' also used the attack as its backdrop). During the attack, as many as 60 percent of the children who were sent to the countryside were consequently orphaned.

'It seems like children are always the unfortunate victims of war,' said Hale, who also directs.

Set in a train station, the play follows the efforts of its characters - among them displaced French children, a young German Jew and many English schoolchildren - to celebrate the holiday in the most dire of circumstances.

In the show, 13 actors take the stage in various roles, ranging from adult caretakers to children ages 9-13. Hale said he has re-written the show in each of its incarnations to accommodate his actor pool, paying particular attention to young talent that shows up ready to bring 'Orphan Train' to life.

Hale also wrote a role for the show's musical director, who is on stage during the show and participating in the narrative rather than offstage providing music that isn't actually part of the world the characters inhabit.

Despite the wide range of ages from his young performers, Hale says he has consistently experienced ease in getting the show off the ground, due primarily to the cast's eagerness to perform.

'All of these kids have done musical theater before, so it's no challenge at all. They love theater and they buckle down and learn the material right away. I don't get that kind of performance from adults,' said Hale with a chuckle.

In order to keep the story as historically accurate as possible, Hale, a physics professor at Portland Community College who also writes television scripts, interviewed Hillsboro resident Jenny Huston, who lived through the blitz as a child, though she and her family stayed in the city.

Through Huston, Hale was able to muster some historical background that lends the show an air of personal historical accuracy, rather than the feel that it was written through research by somebody who couldn't fathom the environment.

'She was able to give me a lot of background information as to how the kids were dressed, and the background stories of friends she knew, who I then made characters in the story,' said Hale.

With the backdrop of the siege of a city as its setting, 'Orphan Train' touches on extremely heavy themes. However, Hale was careful to craft a story that's about finding tiny bits of joy amid sorrow, and while its characters are experiencing life-changing horror in its subtext, the playwright strived to keep the theme of hope and celebration alive through songs and its characters' perseverance.

The result is a bittersweet story of survival that Hale says can be enjoyed by audiences of any age. In crafting it, Hale has also crafted the foundation of a new tradition, bred locally and ready to be shared by generations.

'It's not written down like you would for children. It's simplistic, and there are some heavy themes. There are some very, very serious and dramatic parts that make the audience cry, but there are some humorous parts,' said Hale. 'After all, they're trying to cheer each other up on Christmas Eve.'