Whether it was through a book or TV show, fans of Laura Ingalls Wilders Little House stories have come to know the Ingalls family for more than 80 years. However, Youtheatres 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: Marys Story today.
The adaptation is based on the renowned childrens book series that is centered on Wilders life on the frontier. However, director Gregory Steiber says he wrote the play in an effort to focus on Wilders 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, theres 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, Youtheatres 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 didnt grow up with them, then you should start reading those books because theyre age-old favorites for a good reason, Hormann says. Its a historical novel based on fact. Whats 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 Wilders books, there isnt much written about Mary. But early in his research, he found a recent article that prompted him to slightly alter Wilders original plot.
In a study released in February, pediatrician Dr. Beth Tarini says Mary was misdiagnosed with scarlet fever in Wilders books. But historical documents and biographical records show that Marys blindness was probably the result of meningoencephalitis, a disease that causes swelling in the brain and upper spinal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 Marys 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 thats how Mary went blind in the Little House books, Steiber says. Its funny how one book could affect what people think. I thought that was very interesting.
In the play, Steiber says he refers to Marys 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 Marys determination to live independently.
I try to be accurate, but I didnt 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 Youtheatres 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. Its 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 were making acting choices, were 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.