Claudia Wilkens turns in a powerhouse of a performance as Sister Kenny in the world premiere of Doris Baizley’s Sister Kenny’s Children at the History Theatre. The play tells the story of the international figure Sister Elizabeth Kenny, who did important pioneering work in treating polio in Minneapolis. The play was inspired by the letters from parents and patients who were helped by Sister Kenny’s treatments. Upon reading the letters, the History Theatre’s artistic director, Ron Peluso, commissioned playwright Baizley to write this play on the life of Sister Kenny.
The play is set in the mind of Sister Kenny near the end of her life when she was dying from Parkinson’s. It starts with Kenny’s youth and progresses in chronological order through her move to Minnesota, her elevation to the status of the most admired woman in America, and her establishment of the Sister Kenny Institute in Minnesota. Wilkens’s performance projects Kenny’s strong personality and keenly shows the formidable force Kenny must have been to persuade medical professionals and donors to support her polio treatment.
The ensemble sharing the stage with Wilkens consists of student actors from the St. Paul Conservatory for Performing Artists. Director Peluso does a great job of showcasing the young actors’ talents and keeping them from being overpowered by Wilkens’ performance. Most notable is Ashton Schneider, who is both part of the ensemble and plays the role of Kenny’s adopted daughter Mary. Schneider more than holds her own in a very humorous scene with Wilkens in which Mary attempts to give both fashion and beauty advice to Kenny. Also strong is Brandon Reese as both FDR and the mayor of Minneapolis.
Set designer Justin Hooper creates a utilitarian cream-colored set depicting a polio treatment room; it perfectly complements Shannon O’Black’s beige cream costumes for the ensemble. Against this backdrop, the heavy dark clothes worn by Wilkens further underscore Kenny’s commanding presence.
|sister kenny’s children, playing through february 14 at the history theatre. for tickets ($25-$30) and information, see historytheatre.com.|
The play has several well-written scenes, including the opening sequence and the closing scene. But a significant drawback to the play is that it covers too much ground: all of Kenny’s adult life. Her most significant accomplishments occurred after she moved to Minneapolis, but the play does not reach this point until the intermission. The play does a great job of projecting Kenny’s public persona, but the rapid-fire way that it covers most of her life leaves us with little insight into either the private side of Kenny or how she was able to accomplish as much as she did.
The play has a humorous sequence in which Kenny goes to the movie premiere of her life story, but it conveys little sense of how Kenny felt about her fame. Was she a publicity hound, or a private person who reluctantly used her celebrity status to further the cause of her treatment centers? One confusing scene appeared to approach the issue of Kenny’s sexual orientation but then it changed focus to the outsider status of the disabled victims of polio. Finally, near the end, there are allegations of corruption toward certain officials within the Sister Kenny Institute, but it is unclear if the corruption occurred because Kenny was a weak administrator or because of her declining health.
A reworking of the play to focus more closely on Kenny’s years in Minnesota would slow the play’s frantic pace and allow for development of the private side of Sister Kenny. But despite the play’s flaws, Wilkens’s commanding performance makes this show worth seeing.