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3-20 Copper Children

“The Copper Children,” a new play by Karen Zacarias about orphans in New York sent by train to the Arizona Territory in the early 20th century, is among five new plays performed at this year’s Oregon Shakespeare Festival season.

ASHLAND – History that’s taught in schools doesn’t necessarily tell the whole story about life in America. In recent years, through the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s American Revolutions program, plays “about moments of change in U.S. History” have revealed otherwise unknown stories.

“The Copper Children,” a world premiere of a play by Karen Zacarias, exposes a brutally heart-wrenching, mostly forgotten story of young abandoned children and orphans being sent from an overcrowded Catholic Church orphanage, New York City’s Foundling Hospital, to uncertain futures in the Arizona Territory mining town of Clifton-Morenci in 1904. In the play, because of wide-spread pollution at the Arizona copper miners, mothers unable to have babies of their own eagerly await the arrival of their “children” by the Mercy Train.

The children, mostly of Irish parentage, are specifically designated for the homes of Catholics so that they will be raised Catholic. Not known until the priest, nuns and children arrive is the adopting families are low-income Mexicans, men who work in the mines and their wives. When more financially stable Protestant Anglo couples, who also desperately want children, learn the Irish youths are destined for the homes of Mexicans, ugly tug-of-wars begin, generating conflicts that work their way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Zacarais focuses on a single family in telling her tightly focused story, but the implications are much broader. In all, “Children” is a complicated tale, one that includes the issue of abandoned children and includes religious and racial issues. Although the emphasis is tilted to show the heartache of the would-be Mexican parents, it also posits other questions, including what is best for the children, and less directly notes the impacts of unchecked pollution. By the play’s end, it’s difficult not find sympathy for even the most aggressively characters. All share the desire for children and families, although some use power-abusing means to have their way.

Director Shariffa Au uses a minimalist set in the Angus Bowmer Theatre that allows “Children” to move swiftly from New York City to the dusty Arizona mining town of Clifton-Morenci. The set also allows the actors to seamlessly change roles and identities without disturbing the flow of the play, one that moves in a quick 90 minutes and has no intermission.

The acting Is strong throughout, with Eddie Lopez as the good-intended Father Mandin, Rex Young as the hard-nosed mine manager Charles Mills, Kate Hurster as the childless Lottie Mills, Caro Zeller as Margarita Chacon, who dreams of a child after a series miscarriages, and Armando Duran as George Swayne, the agent charged with placing the foundlings. As with all five plays currently being staged at this year’s opening season, “Children” is strengthened by its choreography and mood-setting use of sound, lights and music.

The history behind “Copper Children,” and the story as written by Zacarais, is complex and complicated, a tale of a time when rules and the legal process for adoption were virtually non-existent. It’s a part of American history that is worth being told.