Austrian folk dancers, nuns in prayer and a happy troupe of von Trapp children have taken over the Performing Arts Center of Lyons Township High School in Western Springs.
The Special Needs Theater of Lyons Township celebrates its 20th anniversary with performances of “The Sound of Music” Nov. 23 and 24.
The company of 33 actors, ages 18 to 46, began rehearsals in the spring through an acting class in LT’s continuing education program.
Classes began in 1992 when three moms requested additional enrichment for their children with special needs who had graduated from LT and found few opportunities elsewhere.
The current production stars Bridget Brown of Darien as Maria and Brian Santangelo of Hinsdale as Captain von Trapp.
Sara Reggi of Darien, who plays Gretl, the youngest von Trapp, said she’s signed up for every acting class and play since 2001.
“I like being with my friends, and my family loves to see me,” Reggi said. “I always get the nicest parts. I love to dance on stage.”
Renee Vrchota of Darien said she has enjoyed portraying some edgy characters over 13 years, including Miss Hannigan in “Annie.” As the baroness pursuing Captain von Trapp, Vrchota gestures with an extra-long cigarette holder and wears a sparkling evening dress, blond curly wig and a diamond engagement ring over long gloves.
“She’s very mean and doesn’t like the kids,” Vrchota explained. “In real life I like kids.”
Several of the original actors have remained with the program or returned, including Laura Rehak, of Indian Head Park as Sister Sophia, Julie Fuener of Hillside as Sister Mary Margaret and Christianne Msall of Chicago as Sister Bernice.
Director Christine Rehak-Grohne also has been with the program since its inception. She said she finds great satisfaction in seeing the actors, including her sister, develop self-esteem, a confident speaking voice, good eye contact, teamwork and the courage to perform in front of others.
“Even if these growths are incremental, they are monumental to our actors and me,” she said.
Some actors can’t read and memorize their lines by listening to tapes. Others overcome hearing or physical challenges to perfect their performances through repeated practice and help with cues.
During performances, Rehak-Grohne remains on stage in costume with a script to reassure actors or improvise, if someone decides to take the play in another direction. She looks forward to wearing a dirndl for “The Sound of Music.”
“Anyone who comes to our shows leaves profoundly changed and happy,” she said. “They see all that people with special needs can do if they are given a chance.”