Midtown: Community

Theater lets disabled cast put its talents on display

For his big moment on stage, the script calls for Kevin Iannucci to bellow out a maniacal laugh, shaking the auditorium to its back-row seats.

He’s been practicing since November, every Tuesday night at 7. But tonight his mom is in the audience, taking pictures of the dress rehearsal. So he really wants to nail it.

When he laughs, the sound comes out deep like Darth Vader’s breath and cackling like Scar from “The Lion King” – a long way from the voice of a 17-year-old boy with Down syndrome.

“It sounds really evil,” says Kevin, grinning under his top hat. His mom waves from the front row.

“He thinks he’s going straight to Broadway,” whispers Anne Iannucci. “He has no inhibitions, unfortunately. He has proposed to many women.”

Like Kevin, half the cast of this play brings a cognitive disability to the stage. This isn’t “A Steetcar Named Desire.” It’s “Timmy Twiddlemeyer and the Pumpkin of Destiny,” an original musical featuring mermaids, evil zebras and a bit of pyrotechnics in the form of flash paper.

But when it opens Friday night, many of the actors will hear their first rounds of applause, take their first bows and get attention for something other than the conditions they’ve had since birth.

“Even their parents are blown away,” said Sally Kinka, the director with Raleigh Inclusive Theater Company.

If you’ve ever been in a high school play, you remember the caked-on makeup, the props made out of canvas and spray paint, the furtive kisses in the costume shop, the jitters and the jealousy over who gets to sing lead.

There’s not much of that here.

At 7 on Tuesday night, most of the cast arrives for rehearsal at Sanderson High School by van from a group home on Whitehall Avenue. They throw on their costumes before they even sit down. They’re adults with jobs in the cafeteria at SAS or at Lowe’s. Some of them tell Kinka about being humiliated by strangers’ jokes in the past, and how good it feels just to sing and dance in public.

Terry Dupree claps a lot. Lisa Cepull can’t wait to put on her cat ears. Laura Hager admires the bow going in her hair.

They giggle backstage. They flub lines. They miss cues. But so do their mentors, all advanced theater students at Sanderson. Once they’re ready, they gather at Shane Dittmar’s piano for warm-ups.

A senior at Sanderson, Dittmar wrote the music for the show and plays it on a grand piano tucked behind the curtain. At 18, he has written songs available on iTunes and amazon.com – many of them composed in the studio above his garage.

“I spend a lot of time up there,” he said.

Dittmar and his twin brother were born with Leber congenital amaurosis, a rare disorder of the retina that left them with very little vision. Two years ago, he played FDR in Sanderson’s production of “Annie,” taking the stage in a wheelchair. Tonight, he ushers Terry through his role as a zebra, sees Lisa through her transition from mermaid to cat and helps Laura navigate her role as Timmy Twiddlemeyer’s sister.

And when he gets to the climactic scene with the villain, he provides the soundtrack to Kevin’s evil laugh – a musical boost to an actor’s first big moment.