Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Play in Minnesota tells story of Sister Kenny from polio era

From The Pioneer Press in Minnesota:

Given the topic of kids stricken with crippling polio and a backwoods-Australian nurse who fights the medical establishment to help them, you might expect "Sister Kenny's Children" to turn into a tear-jerker — or a facile glorification of a Florence Nightingale-style "saint."

Fortunately the world premiere at History Theatre has a lot more depth than that. Unlike some of the History Theatre's biographical plays that have offered shallow looks at complicated personalities, Doris Baizley's script gives fascinating insight into the flaws that leavened Sister Elizabeth Kenny's heroism.

Key to the success of the show is a powerful performance by veteran actor Claudia Wilkens as Kenny ((pictured). She captures the strength of character — and the darker side of angry, stubborn egotism — that drove Kenny to success but also nearly sabotaged her aims.

The play begins with Kenny near the end of her life in 1952, ironically stricken with crippling Parkinson's Disease after she has spent her life rehabilitating others. As her mind starts to wander, we revisit her early life, starting with her days as a bush nurse with no formal training, in the Australian outback. We discover how she earned her title of "Sister" (a lieutenant rank) while serving as a nurse in the Australian army during World War II on dangerous "dark ships" that crossed the sea without lights.

As polio epidemics grew in the 1930s, Kenny started treating patients with a method that raised the hackles of the Australian medical establishment because it was the opposite of their mandated treatment of immobilization with splints and plaster casts. Consequently, in spite of her surprising success rate, Kenny butted heads with doctors on every continent she visited — until she landed in the Twin Cities as part of a trip to the Mayo Clinic.

Open-minded local physicians seeking a better treatment for polio patients led to the founding of the world-renowned Kenny Rehabilitation Institute in Minnesota. Stunning results led to a movie about Kenny starring Rosalind Russell and the top spot on Gallup's Most Admired Women list. But Kenny didn't get to enjoy her fame for long.

Director Ron Peluso has filled the show with talented young actors from the St. Paul Conservatory for Performing Arts, who play everything from polio patients to reporters and doctors. They step in and out of roles in a flash, yet smart staging and acting eliminate confusion. With arms linked to shoulders and a back-and-forth sway, the actors even create animated scenery, conveying the ocean's waves.

Ashton Schneider gets to step out of the ensemble with a charming performance as Kenny's adopted daughter, Mary, providing an appealingly honest yet sympathetic foil to Kenny's sometimes myopic vision.

With fine acting and a savvy script, the show provides a compelling look at the outspoken Australian woman who illuminated the darkest days of the polio epidemic, earning worldwide acclaim from her fortuitous adopted home — Minnesota.