Don’t cry for them: Open Circle’s inclusive ‘Evita’

Wednesday, Aug. 16, 2006

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Photo courtesy of Ian Armstrong
Sign and dance: From left, Amanda Johnson is Evita and Rob McQuay, Che in command, while Roslyn Ward signs in Open Circle Theatre Company’s production of the Andrew Lloyd Webber⁄Tim Rice musical ‘‘Evita.” Open Circle’s cast integrates the talents of actors with and without disabilities.

As artistic director of the Open Circle Theatre and assistant director of its current production, Suzanne Richard has both a cast and crutches. She handles them equally well. The cast, more than two dozen actors with and without disabilities, are running through their final rehearsals before ‘‘Evita” opens at Round House Theatre in Silver Spring. The crutches help Richard, who has osteogenesis imperfecta, make her way around the musicians, technicians, actors and staff so she can do what she does best: create theater.

‘‘I went into theater to put people with disabilities ‘being and doing’ on stage,” says Richard, who grew up in Rockville and holds a bachelor of arts degree in theater from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. ‘‘The whole idea behind the company is to show that not only can actors with disabilities enhance a production, and not hinder it, but to show that people with disabilities can do anything.”

Richard caught the acting bug early.

‘‘I’ve been doing this [since] my mom started taking me seriously when I told her I wanted to act,” she says.

She went to drama camps for gifted and talented children, landed a role in Adventure Theatre’s ‘‘The Reluctant Dragon,” even attended Round House Theatre’s summer program. Still, she admits, ‘‘I didn’t have any role models growing up.”

Dressed in jeans and a T-shirt, Richard takes a hands-on approach. She understands that she’s a role model, but she’s the artistic director of a theater company, too — and she has an audience to wow.

‘‘I care about it being a professional product,” Richard explains. ‘‘It comes down to the quality of the show. We showcase disabled and non-disabled actors, and we need to make sure we are giving them a platform that is worthy of their talents.”

Blooming flower

About the time ‘‘Evita” debuted on Broadway in 1979, Open Circle managing director Wendy Wilmer was doing stage work in Washington, D.C.

‘‘I fell in love with the theater in second grade,” explains Wilmer, an elegant actress whose amethyst jewelry coordinates perfectly with her pale purple sundress. ‘‘I call it my great addiction.”

Back in second grade, though, Wilmer — disabled after a bout with polio at 8 months old — made her acting debut ‘‘as a flower planted downstage left”

Even though she had been discouraged from a career path that might lead to the stage, when Wilmer grew up and moved to the D.C. area with her husband, she pursued acting as a hobby, appearing in productions with Catalyst Theater, Rorschach Theatre and Arena Stage.

Years later, in the mid-1990s, mother-of-two Wilmer would retire from her marketing job at Bell Atlantic and take up the cause of disabilities advocacy, a grass roots campaign that culminated in the founding of Open Circle Theatre with Richard.

‘‘For me personally,” she says, ‘‘these are the three threads of my life that I thought were running parallel. They converge at Open Circle.”

And then a coffin rolls by, bearing a shroud-wrapped Evita played by Amanda Johnson, who has the title role. Wilmer excuses herself and points her wheelchair toward the black box theater, which tonight is tarted up to look like a Buenos Aires dance hall. The show must go on.

Rolling along

The first impression one gets of the cast of ‘‘Evita” isn’t that many of them are actors with disabilities — it’s that many of them look familiar. Some of the area’s most lauded actors are here, like Helen Hayes award-nominated Rob McQuay — who plays Che in a way that literally abandons his disability. Warren ‘‘Wawa” Snipe, the noted dancer⁄actor⁄educator plays Che’s second in command. Snipe’s ‘‘Wild Zappers” collaborator, the actor⁄dancer⁄choreographer Fred Beam, is the show’s Sign Master. Sign language is deeply ingrained in this production, to the extent that it’s hard to figure out which of the signing cast can hear and which are, in fact, deaf. Which makes sense, really. They’re all artists, after all — actors, dancers, singers. This is what they do.

‘‘We didn’t cast everyone who showed up who had a disability,” Richard says.

And accommodations many theatergoers never even think about are de rigueur: Audio description? On demand. Wheelchair accommodation? Always. (Arrive early to ‘‘pre-board” if you’d like; park at the Wayne Street Garage and it’s a straight, smooth shot to the theater, though you might want to stop for a bite to eat in downtown Silver Spring.)

I am Sam

‘‘Evita” is, first and foremost, a musical. And that’s one of the reasons Stuart Weich is here.

‘‘I’ve done musical directing since I was a teenager,” says Weich, a perpetually smiling, slightly disheveled, totally mensch-y pediatrician who lives in Rockville, but grew up playing recorder, clarinet, piano — you name it — in the Bronx.

‘‘I came down here for medical school and fell in love,” he says — aaawwwwwwwww. But it’s true. Weich did his undergraduate at Columbia University, spent some time at the London School of Economics and met his wife while at George Washington University.

‘‘My practice in pediatrics is primarily special needs kids,’ he explains. ‘‘But I like music.

‘‘Doctors and music tend to go together,” he adds. ‘‘My bass player for this show was one of my anatomy teachers at GWU ... We spent more time talking about music than cadavers!”

Before that mental picture could dissipate, another vision appears: Sam Weich, 13, dressed like an Argentine school boy in a cap and pinstriped vest. A rising eighth-grader at Bethesda’s St. Jane de Chantal, Sam is a show biz veteran, with credits at Kensington Arts Theatre, Rockville Musical Theatre and Imagination Stage as well as the sixth-grade production of ‘‘Grease” at school. (He played Doody.)

‘‘I’ve had to audition for every part,” he says. No nepotism charges here. ‘‘Most of the time, I get called.”

The thing about Sam is, in addition to acting chops, dancing skills and huge brown eyes, he has the same disease as Richards: osteogenesis imperfecta. OI leaves him pretty nonchalant. For Sam, it’s the reason he’s an actor and a musician instead of, say, a football star.

‘‘I can concentrate on other things,” he shrugs.

Like ‘‘Evita.” When asked what the show is about, Sam offers this brief synopsis:

‘‘It’s a little confusing,” he warns. ‘‘This young girl has a dream: to become really rich and famous. She’s an actress using her skills, and a whore, using both to get Juan Peron.

‘‘He becomes president, she becomes powerful, she’s tired out and gets cancer, but she thinks she’s been doing everything right! She’s like, ‘Why did God put such a good person in a bad body?’”

To Sam, Evita’s question is pathetic, not ironic. She obviously was clueless when it came to what makes a body — and a person — good or bad. And she didn’t seem to know the first thing about God, either.

‘‘God puts us everywhere for a reason,” he explains. ‘‘He has purposes for us.”

Sam ambles back to rehearsal, and his dad talks a little more, even though the kid has really said it all.

‘‘As the father of a disabled child,” he says, ‘‘I know he doesn’t see himself as disabled. So for [Open Circle] to get people to look at being disabled in a different way — this group challenges everyone.

‘‘They force you to look past the disabilities.”

Open Circle Theatre presents ‘‘Evita” through Aug. 27, with performances at 8 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday, and at 2 and 7:30 p.m. Sunday at Round House Theatre, 8641 Colesville Road, Silver Spring. Tickets range from $15 to $30. Call 240-683-8934 or log on to