It’s Rumbling Down the Tracks: Olympia Family Theater Presents Orphan Train

Photo by David Nowitz


By Kelli Samson

olympia pediatricsWhoooooo. Whoooo-whoooooooo….

Nope. It’s not the five o’clock whistle from the brewery downtown. It’s not the train heading to the Port of Olympia.

That whistle you’ve been hearing is probably Olympia Family Theater’s (OFT) upcoming production of Orphan Train, running April 4 through April 20.

The play is written by Aurand Harris and is directed by Olympia High School’s own Kathy Dorgan. You may recognize her work as the director of the Olympia Educational Foundation’s annual productions during the last decade or so. Orphan Train is her directorial debut with OFT.

olympia family theater
Annabelle Samson (below, right) plays Frank/Frankie in Orphan Train. Here, she rehearses with the actors who play her adoptive parents, Stephanie Kroschel and Sam Johnson.

Dorgan read the play a couple of years ago and wondered, “How have I lived and not known that 250,000 kids rode trains to find homes, not even 100 years ago?”

The story is based upon the collected journal entries, archives, and interviews with the children who rode these trains from the mid-nineteenth century into the early twentieth century here in the United States.

To most of us, the orphan trains are something with which we were never acquainted in history class. However, there was a time when disadvantaged, destitute, and usually homeless children were rounded up from eastern cities overpopulated due to massive emigration, primarily New York.

Some of the children were runaways. However, in most cases, one or more of their parents had died, or they were the children of poor immigrants who could not afford another mouth to feed.

The trains traveled across America’s heartland, shuttling the kids off at every stop. Townspeople could simply pick out the kids they wanted, sign for them, and take them home. Heartbreakingly, many siblings riding the trains together were separated in this process.

Many found themselves, at last, with a real, loving home. However, some became just another set of much-needed hands on the farm.

The orphans who went unwanted at one stop would re-board the train, only to go through the process again in the next town.

The story told through the touching vignettes in this play, says Dorgan, is all about finding your people. As it turns out, so is being a part of the theater.

“I’m super-excited that we have actual families acting in the play. My goal was to have that feeling of finding your people. I think that’s the most important thing. That’s what I love about doing a drama program. For some kids, it’s their people. It’s finding those people. We see kids at school all the time that don’t yet have their people,” she explains.

Dorgan, who is also the artistic director of the Creative Theatre Experience (CTE), didn’t know she was missing her people until she found herself a competitive high school swimmer with a broken leg.

“Clearly, my swimming was done,” she recalls. “My high school counselor, who was also my swim coach, suggested that I take a drama class. I did, and that was it.”

olympia family theater
Hailey Jeffers plays Little Lucy in Orphan Train. Here, she rehearses with Karlie Kooi (left), who plays her older sister.

After performing in a summer stock program in college, she continues, “I realized that being onstage was not the main thing for me. I like it, but I know other people who like it a lot more. What I really like are the conversations and the digging in and the thinking about the world of the play.”

One person I know seems to really enjoy being on stage – my daughter, Annabelle Samson, a third grade student at Hansen Elementary.

She’s been a loyal attendee of camp for many seasons with OFT, and was delighted to audition and get the part of Frank/Frankie, a little orphan girl who has been passing herself off as a boy in order to protect herself.

When I watched her audition for the part a second time, I was amazed. Sure, kids do things that really knock our socks off from time to time, but this was different. Watching your child do something you, yourself, do not have the courage to do is a thrill. It’s also an odd sort of out-of-body experience for which the parenting books don’t prepare you.

What Samson loves about playing Frankie, she says, is that “we both sometimes do stuff kind of like what boys do.”

Orphan Train is also the debut for seven-year-old Hailey Jeffers. Jeffers is playing the role of a mute orphan known as Little Lucy.

This role has lead to Jeffers not only checking out books on the orphan trains from the library, but also to the discovery that her neighbor’s great-aunt was a part of the orphan trains.

olympia family theater
Orphan Train director Kathy Dorgan watches a rehearsal with stage manager Richard Wheeler.

While many orphans found themselves no better than hired hands after the orphan trains, there were lots who found the families of which they had never let themselves dream.

Many did find their people.

Finding where one belongs is at the heart of Orphan Train, much as it is in life. And, for some, they find their homes in the theatre.

“The thing I love is that theater is a place for kids to just be creative and not worry about it,” says Dorgan.  “I really love that OFT provides that feeling of offering something of yourself to people and having them appreciate what you do in such a visual and visible, and auditory way.”

As Dorgan so eloquently put it, “I say to the kids, ‘Don’t forget that you were a part of something – this living thing that people loved. You stood on a stage, and people watched you and loved you.’ I think even if you’re eight years old, that feeling is still the same. These are the gifts we give each other.”

You can purchase your tickets to OFT’s Orphan Train now at or by calling The Washington Center for the Performing Arts box office at 360-753-8585.


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