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If you go
What: Fort Wayne Youtheatre’s “Little House on the Prairie: Mary’s Story”
When: 7 p.m. today, 11 a.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday; pre-show party at 6 p.m. today
Where: Arts United Center, 303 E. Main St.
Admission: $17 adult; $11 ages 60 and older and 18 and younger; $2 additional ArtsTix fee for adults, $1 additional fee for children; or 422-4226
Fort Wayne Youtheatre actors rehearse a fight scene from “Little House on the Prairie: Mary’s Story.” The production opens today at Arts United Center.

Mary’s ‘Little House’ saga told

Youtheatre opens with different take on classic series

Photos by Cathie Rowand | The Journal Gazette
Youtheatre members act out a school-yard dance as part of the “Little House” production.

Whether it was through a book or TV show, fans of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House” stories have come to know the Ingalls family for more than 80 years. However, Youtheatre’s stage production shows there may be more for fans to learn.

Kicking off its 79th season, the Fort Wayne Youtheatre will present “Little House on the Prairie: Mary’s Story” today.

The adaptation is based on the renowned children’s book series that is centered on Wilder’s life on the frontier. However, director Gregory Steiber says he wrote the play in an effort to focus on Wilder’s older sister, Mary, who went blind after an illness. The 14-year-old left her pioneer family – during a time when most women did not leave the homestead alone – to attend a school for the blind in Iowa.

“So much attention is always given to Laura Ingalls Wilder, but given the fact that her sister went blind at 14, there’s really a story to be told there,” Steiber says. “Where they lived in the Midwest in the 1800s, it was a huge challenge.”

Steiber says he was a fan of the book series as a child. The series was adapted into a NBC show in the 1970s starring Michael Landon as Charles Ingalls and Melissa Gilbert as Laura.

“It was a huge cultural phenomenon when I was growing up,” he says. “It was something that I thought our generation would want to share with their children. I wanted to bridge the adult audience and the children audience together.”

Leslie Hormann, Youtheatre’s executive director, says the literary-based production is also great for teachers who would like to build a lesson plan around the play before taking students to the school shows on Monday.

“If you didn’t grow up with them, then you should start reading those books because they’re age-old favorites for a good reason,” Hormann says. “It’s a historical novel based on fact. What’s a better way to learn history than to see it come alive onstage?”

Stieber says he spent three months researching before he wrote the play. He says that outside of Wilder’s books, there isn’t much written about Mary. But early in his research, he found a recent article that prompted him to slightly alter Wilder’s original plot.

In a study released in February, pediatrician Dr. Beth Tarini says Mary was misdiagnosed with scarlet fever in Wilder’s books. But historical documents and biographical records show that Mary’s blindness was probably the result of meningoencephalitis, a disease that causes swelling in the brain and upper spinal cord, Tarini says.

According to the study, Wilder herself refers to Mary’s blindness as the result of “some sort of spinal sickness” in letters and an unpublished memoir. However, publishers thought it would be too complicated for children to understand, so they simply went with scarlet fever. As a fan of the books series, Tarini thought scarlet fever could induce blindness until she went to medical school

“She (Tarini) says she would diagnose children with scarlet fever, and a panic would set in for parents because they knew that’s how Mary went blind in the ‘Little House’ books,” Steiber says. “It’s funny how one book could affect what people think. I thought that was very interesting.”

In the play, Steiber says he refers to Mary’s diagnosis as a brain infection and feels it is not necessary to dredge any deeper for a young audience. The story is more focused on Mary’s determination to live independently.

“I try to be accurate, but I didn’t want to say that the books were wrong and that this story is wrong,” he says. “The thing I find the most moving in my script is that she went completely blind, but she in turn ended up taking care of her family by taking it head on. Her strength really got her through.”

The production also invited a collaboration with Youtheatre’s new board member, David Nelson, president and CEO of the League for the Blind and Disabled. Since the play involves Mary attending a school for the blind, Hormann says clients of the league came in to teach the actors about certain skills blind people must develop to overcome the loss of sight.

“Our top priority is to educate, and the arts can give wonderful insight and different perspectives. This is a new insight,” she says. “It’s about treating people with respect and empathy – respect comes from a better understanding.”

Stieber says working with the league has not only added credibility to the production, it also has given the actors a standard to live up to in their performances.

“What is important to us is that as we’re making acting choices, we’re always making them in honor and respect of those who gave their time to us. We want to pay tribute to their accomplishments and their triumph over a challenging situation.”