Challenge Theater's premiere puts disabled teen-ager in the limelight

April 18, 1993|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,Staff Writer

MIDDLETOWN -- The wheelchair is no prop. It belongs to Matthew Hauk, the 15-year-old actor portraying a disabled boy in a play called "Junk."

The play is the first by Challenge Theater, a newly formed group in Frederick County performing plays about people with disabilities. Matthew, the only actor in "Junk" in a wheelchair, has cerebral palsy.

"I can relate to it," he says of the play after its debut last week at Middletown Elementary School, just west of Frederick. "It teaches kids a whole bunch of lessons without them even knowing it, like: Don't treat people who have a handicap badly."

Matthew teaches that lesson every day of his life. Cerebral palsy has impaired his balance and control of muscles since birth.

He did not take his first step until he was 7. In his first baseball game he crawled around the bases.

Although in "Junk" he plays a boy confined to a wheelchair, Matthew Hauk in real life can walk and even run, slowly and awkwardly.

"I see him teaching that lesson to kids he's around all the time," says his mother, Linda Hauk, a nurse. "The lesson is: He is like everybody else. . . . He adjusts the environment so he does what everybody else does."

When kids his age started riding bicycles, he sat on a scooterboard. After he tired of watching them hit a baseball, his mother built a tripod out of metal and wood so he could stand at home plate.

"Perhaps he does things differently, or does them more slowly," she says. "But he does them."

Now he acts. A ninth-grader at Frederick's Gov. Thomas Johnson High School, he was recruited by the founders of Challenge Theater, three women long active in community nTC theater: Peggy Sheehan, Jo Houck and Karen Keller.

Mrs. Sheehan and Mrs. Houck are former elementary school teachers, and Mrs. Keller is a school volunteer. They have nine children among them.

Although none of the founders are disabled, the women agreed on the need for educating audiences, especially young audiences.

"Everybody has disabilities," Mrs. Sheehan says. "Be it a fear of something, or a physical disability. We all want to be treated with respect and dignity.

"If you can teach this to children, they'll remember and carry it with them."

"Junk" is about people discarded in a junkyard along with hubcaps and old lamps -- a boy in a wheelchair, a bag lady, a nasty little girl and a man who speaks delightfully in rhymes but can't read.

Funny and poignant, it is an original play by Michael Hulett, who lives in Virginia. He's written off-Broadway plays as well as plays for community and children's theater.

"Junk" is very good -- surprisingly good for a play debuting in the gymnasium of an elementary school before an audience of squirmy boys and girls sitting cross-legged at half-court.

It even features a professional actress, the Frederick fourth-grader Emily Houck, Mrs. Houck's daughter, who recently completed a 16-week national tour playing Tootie in "Meet Me in St. Louis." She is like lightning on stage.

Mrs. Sheehan, who directs "Junk," says the small, ambitious troupe will perform it again next month at another elementary school and a church, and after that for whomever asks, inside or outside Frederick County, "as far as our rented van will take us."

Next spring, she says, Challenge Theater will perform another play, perhaps about aging. But this spring it's a junkyard where lessons are taught about compassion and teamwork. It's a junkyard where the boy in the wheelchair tries on shoes he believes will magically make him run and jump like everybody else.

After the play, Matthew Hauk lifts himself out of his chair. He no longer needs it all the time, only after operations. He's had eight. The last one, a year and a half ago, was to lengthen his hamstrings so he could stand up more straight. He spent seven months in the chair after that.

People often stare as he walks, especially young people, but now nimble students with bright faces approach him as he walks slowly out of the gym. Before darting back to class, they say how much they liked him in this play about disabilities.

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