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Musical unites seniors, young actors

'Now I Can Soar' features Luther Manor residents

Feb. 21, 2012

Rusty Tym is a bit nervous. With only one play under his belt, the Luther Manor resident still considers himself new to the performing arts. For the follow-up production, he not only has a lead role but will be singing a solo.

"Every day is a learning experience," he said. "It's fun, it's frustrating, it's foolishness - but it's also fascinating," he said.

Living in a retirement community, many people might think he's seen it all, done it all. But there are plenty of challenges left to tackle, and acting is one of them.

Tym will play Teju, "a wise old bird" who tries to guide a group of children inhabiting a new planet in the play "Now I Can Soar."

The short musical was written by Diane Johnson, former artistic director for Modjeska Youth Theatre Company, specifically with the residents of Luther Manor in mind and the kids in her new youth theater company, Unity in Music. The story addresses numerous hot-button topics, such as bullying and truthfulness, and it also brings a message of unity between generations.

"We're trying to infuse some positivity," she said. "Life can be very dreary otherwise."

Shows on Feb. 29 and March 1 will be open to the public and admission is free.

Johnson was inspired by the problems of the world - political fighting, water and air pollution and countries at war - and projected that into the year 2050. Child geniuses build a rocket ship to leave for a healthier planet, and a few seniors who have become street people manage to jump aboard.

"They go through the cosmos and land on the perfect world," she said.

As the group settles, the little girl in charge starts to tell her friends how the planet should be developed and it becomes apparent to the seniors, who have transformed into inspirational birds, that they're headed down the same path that destroyed Earth.

Initially, the children don't want to hear what the old birds have to say, Tym said. Through song, and even a rap, the characters unite and make their new world a better place.

He is joined by fellow resident Joyce Heinrich, who plays feathered friend Sequoia. She, too, stepped up to a new challenge.

"I made my acting debut last year at 81," she said.

Expecting to deliver one line, Heinrich was so endearing that the role was expanded so her character ended that play.

"The emoting and the stage presence isn't the difficult part," she said. "It's really about the memory at my age. I'm hard-pressed to repeat the five lines I learned yesterday."

While Tym and Heinrich don't boast about their talents, Johnson will. Initially the lead was one role, but with both actors auditioning, Johnson split it in two.

Tym and Heinrich participated in The Penelope Project, a two-year program using the story of Penelope from Homer's "Odyssey" to engage an entire long-term care community in the creative process. The experience included discussion groups, movement exercises, visual art, stories and music, and culminated with the performance of "Finding Penelope," a professionally produced, original world premiere play presented inside the care facility.

The dedication to and success of that project attracted Johnson's attention.

"Any institution taking on a two-year project has to be extraordinary," Johnson said.

"Soar" is a much smaller scale show put together in about four weeks with a cast of 19 seniors and students. Another 30 people are creating props and costumes.

During a workshop to introduce "Soar" residents were handed bags of material and supplies and given 20 minutes to costume one of the people at their table.

The actual play costumes, which the seniors have been making, are much more elaborate but the activity was a testament to Luther Manor residents' quick thinking, enthusiasm and creativity, Johnson said.

At a glance

WHAT: Children and seniors will perform in the musical "Now I Can Soar"

WHERE: Luther Manor senior living community, 4545 N. 92nd St.

WHEN: 7 p.m. Feb. 29 and March 1

COST: Free admission

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