Home, the Alden orphans decide, isn't a place.
For them, home is where the siblings are — even if it means being on the run, huddled in an abandoned boxcar in the darkening forest.
Directed by Robin Riley, "The Boxcar Children" opens at 7:30 p.m. tonight and runs through Feb. 6 at Stained Glass Theatre, 830 E. High St. The production opens a "Season of Healing" for the theater, with "Tom Sawyer" and "Anne of Green Gables" slated for upcoming months.
Adapted from the popular children's series dating back to 1924 by the same name, "The Boxcar Children" is the story of four orphaned siblings who lose their mother and father in a tragic accident. Scared they'll be scattered throughout the foster system, they run away with little to their name and find refuge in an abandoned boxcar in an effort to stay together. Eventually, a wealthy grandfather, who later comes to learn of their existence, takes them in, but not before the four are forced to find creative ways to survive.
The four siblings — Henry, Jessie, Violet and Benny Alden — all have their distinct personalities. Henry, the eldest boy at around 14, picks up odd jobs to bring money back to the siblings. Jessie, the eldest girl, is the ringleader; she keeps them grounded. Violet is, at one point, dubbed "Miss Clean." She's the one who remembers to pack soap, toothbrushes and clean underwear, and "she's kind of a girly girl," Riley said. The youngest is Benny, who many think is "slow" but has a knack for putting things together to create something new.
Though he's the youngest sibling at around 6 years old, Benny has his fair share of lines in the play. It's one of Benny's lines that caught Riley's heart.
The line comes before the siblings go on the run, as they sit in an office, awaiting a group of adults to determine their fate. Benny, one adult points out, attends a "special school" and is believed to be "slow" — a complication for the foster system.
"Am I slow?" Benny asks his siblings.
"No, kid, you go at the speed limit," Henry responds.
It's a small exchange in the mix of a larger moment, but it's Riley's favorite line.
"Me, personally, I have three children that have special needs," Riley said. "And sometimes the way they see life and the way other people see life, we are always in such a hurry that if we did just slow down and saw things the way they saw things, I think the world would be a much better place, honestly."
In that aspect, and thinking about the previous year, the play touches her heart, she said. Living through and with COVID-19 has been difficult for a lot of people, she said.
"I feel like this play is healing, and it gives us hope," Riley said. "There's a world of uncertainties, like with these children. They have so many struggles ahead of them, but they come together and make it work. They didn't know their future, but there was light at the end of the tunnel."
The play shares a message of unity, that working together is always better. It's family-focused, and directing the play brought back Riley's own childhood memories.
Having temporarily forgotten the story line (she chose to direct the play because of her love for working with children), it was a pleasant surprise to revisit.
"When I started reading, I said, 'Oh my goodness, this is so wonderful.' It brought back a lot of memories," she said. "I had a really strong family growing up. My mom was a stay-at-home mom. Today, so many (families) have both parents working."
The past year's struggles have had a silver lining, though. With the Alden children's story heavily focused on the importance of family, it parallels what Riley saw over the previous year. Families were together more, she said. They had to be. That, Riley said, has been a blessing through everything.
And if the story comes at the perfect moment in time, the cast came at one even more so.
It's the first thing Riley will say about the four actors taking on the roles of the Alden children: "This cast was definitely God-sent."
When auditions took place back in November, numbers were low. Riley said she prayed the right people to deliver the message would come along, and she's convinced they did.
Only two of the actors knew one another, siblings Isabel (as Jessie) and Nathaniel Crews (as Benny). Joe Lemerande and Kyra Meyer were newcomers, and the group, Riley said, was at first a little skittish of bonding like siblings.
"But I kid you not, it was like they got on stage and they just came together. Now, several weeks into it, to watch them on stage is like watching real siblings," she said.
With the holidays cutting into available time, the production has been a smooth, collaborative effort, from the work done on the elaborate set design Riley is an avid fan of to the older children, Joe and Kyra, graciously filling in when a line is missed.
"They don't hesitate to keep the flow going," Riley said.
"It has been just such a team effort for Stained Glass Theatre to make this work," she said, "that we haven't really had any major events — which I'm knocking on wood and thanking God for."
"The Boxcar Children" will show six nights starting tonight through Feb. 6 with shows at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays and matinees at 2 p.m. Saturdays.
Tickets can be purchased at sgtmidmo.org/reservations, by emailing [email protected] or by calling 573-634-5313. Opening night tickets are $7 each; all other shows are $10 each. Stained Glass Theatre is not requiring patrons to wear facial coverings, though they are recommended.