Bess Winebarger worked up a sweat as Dorothy, skipping down the Yellow Brick Road, chasing after her dog Toto and tangling with Cowardly Lion on a recent Sunday afternoon.
She and her fellow actors were rehearsing “The Wizard of Oz” — the 24th annual production of Jerry’s Habima Theatre, which opens Thursday, March 9 at Dunwoody’s Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta (MJCCA).
Winebarger said she loves acting and the “iconic” role she plays.
“I like playing somebody I’m not,” she said.
Losing one’s self to get into character takes on special meaning here.
Jerry’s Habima Theatre is a theatrical company produced by paid professionals whose cast is almost totally comprised of actors with special needs. Autism, Down syndrome and cerebral palsy are among the challenges faced by members of the cast.
But, like the Wicked Witch of the West, those labels melt into insignificance in this environment of acceptance, patience and total group focus on creating one great show.
Being Jewish is not a requirement for joining this troupe of adults 18 and older, which holds auditions for each year’s production. Many of the actors, who primarily come from across the north metro area, are now regulars. Winebarger is doing her 12th show.
Most cast members have jobs or are in school, but all must commit to attending two- and three-hour rehearsals many evenings and weekends over two months.
The hard work pays off. Their performances sell out the 254-seat Morris & Rae Frank Theatre at MJCCA year after year.
Luke Davis, who plays the Wizard this year and played Shrek last year, said their shows build the actors’ confidence “and help to break down barriers.”
Susie Davidow has watched that happen for 16 years as director of MJCCA’s Blonder Family Department of Special Needs, which produces the theater in conjunction with the community center’s Arts + Culture Department.
Since its start, Jerry’s Habima Theatre has evolved from 15 minutes of Shakespeare with an audience of family and friends to having a reputation as “one of the go-to events in Atlanta,” Davidow said.
The theater company has received a Suzi Bass Award, which “celebrates the best of Atlanta’s theater,” and is a two-time recipient of the National Endowment for the Arts’ Challenge America Grant.
“It’s been an amazing experience. It’s hard to put into words,” Davidow said. “They’re being appreciated, being valued. Their self-esteem, their pride, and that same feeling on the faces of their parents … Each year, people come back out and say, ‘This show was the best. How are you going to top this?’ And then we do it again.”
Davidow, of Sandy Springs, retires March 31. She is the 2017 production’s honoree for her “outstanding” service to MJCCA.
Many say she will be missed. Among them is the Wizard, himself.
“I love Susie,” Davis said. “She’s a great ambassador for us, and I’m proud to know her.”
Davidow was raised in Richmond, Va., during the civil rights movement, and during a time when Holocaust survivors were moving to the city. Her parents both had master’s degrees in social work; her father was executive director of the Jewish Community Federation of Richmond.
Davidow grew up feeling that everyone should have a voice and be recognized. She’s been happy to see that way of thinking carried forward in her two children and two grandchildren.
She worked as a special education teacher in the Cincinnati Public Schools and worked in operations at the Coca-Cola Co. in Atlanta for 12 years before taking early retirement. After that, she was off to MJCCA, where she could meld her love of Judaism with her passion for enriching the lives of people with special needs.
She leads a staff of four who produce educational, recreational and social programming for children and adults with special needs. Davidow works with the more than 100 adult participants, helping them plan and take yearly trips to places such as California, Nashville and Washington D.C.
They bowl on Monday nights; have monthly “VSP (Very Special People) Cafe” trips to different restaurants; and choose from a wide variety of classes and sports.
Jerry’s Habima Theatre has staged productions such as “Grease,” “Guys & Dolls,” “Disco Inferno,” and “Aladdin,” among others.
Sometimes their shows go on the road, said Davidow, recalling a performance of “Honk” in Blue Ridge, Ga.
“We were doing one show for the community and one the next day for school-age children,” Davidow said. “There was a lot of concern that the children wouldn’t be respectful of the actors. We did the show. … They were a phenomenal audience.”
Mary Nye Bennett, an actor and artistic director of Atlanta Lyric Theatre, has directed Jerry’s Habima Theatre for two years. “It’s just so inspiring. You feel every emotion when you watch this group perform,” she said.
Googie Uterhardt, a familiar face on Atlanta’s professional theater circuit, plays a hilarious Scarecrow in his first engagement with this troupe.
“I’m very excited to be working with them, finally,” said Uterhardt, who will play King Herod in Atlanta Lyric Theatre’s April performance of “Jesus Christ Superstar.” “I’ve watched them for years, and it really is incredible what they have accomplished.”
Barbara Kilbourne, of Dunwoody, said her son Davey, who has Down Syndrome, loves everything he does at MJCCA. He’s part of the ensemble in “The Wizard of Oz.”
“We love that they take into consideration each of the young adults’ abilities so that they can contribute,” she said.
The Department of Special Needs is named for its benefactors, the late Jerry Blonder, and his wife, Lois.
“It’s the talent and the enormous dedication of individuals like Susie Davidow that have made the program the success it is today,” Blonder said.
Davidow, who turned 70 in January, plans to enjoy more time with her family when she retires and has lots of volunteering in mind.
“I’ve always spoken out and stood up for what I believe in,” she said.
Among the groups she plans to support are the Anti-Defamation League, the American Civil Liberties Union and Planned Parenthood.
She wants to work with the special needs committee of Dunwoody’s Temple Emanu-El and would like to be a docent at Atlanta’s Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta.
She also plans to stay involved with the Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta.
“I’m not walking away from that,” Davidow said. “I love the participants. I love the families.”
The Wizard of Oz
Jerry’s Habima Theatre presents its 24th annual musical production produced by professionals with a cast featuring people with special needs.
Location: Morris & Rae Frank Theatre, Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta, 5342 Tilly Mill Road, Dunwoody.
Dates: Thursdays and Saturdays, March 9-18, 7:30 p.m.; Sundays, March 12 and March 19, 1 p.m. and 5 p.m.
Cost: General admission, $35; children 12 and under, $15. MJCCA members, $25; children 12 and under, $10.
Tickets: Call 678-812-4002, or visit atlantajcc.org/boxoffice.
–Donna Williams Lewis