The best play you may never see

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Shawn Aleong, an "ID" actor, rehearses a scene from "A Fierce Kind of Love."

I'M SO sorry to tell you this, but the best play in town right now is one you probably won't get to see.

It's called A Fierce Kind of Love, and everyone in Philly should experience it. But its 10-day run at the 100-seat theater at Christ Church Neighborhood House has already sold out.

So this is a plea for a Fairy Godfunder with deep compassion and deeper pockets to figure out how to extend the play's run. Because this extraordinary production has the power to open eyes, minds, and hearts to those who are invisible to many of us: Folks with intellectual disabilities.

Wait - did your eyes just glaze over? That happens to a lot of people who've never known someone with an intellectual disability (ID, for short). And, not to judge (ahem), but you may hold some uninformed perceptions about those with Down syndrome or autism or any of the conditions that fall under ID's wide canopy.

So, if you're about to turn the page on this column or click on a zippier-sounding link, please stay with me here.

A Fierce Kind of Love, which premiered Thursday, tells the local untold story of the intellectual-disability rights movement from 1968 to the present.

The movement's first advocates were parents who refused to heed their doctors' (and society's) advice to institutionalize their ID children, or to lower their expectations for them.

These parents wanted their boys and girls to enjoy basic rights - like public access and a public education - that were guaranteed to "normal" kids but withheld from kids whose abilities fall outside the spectrum of "normal." Every success was a battle, forced by lawsuits that forced the courts to acknowledge that U.S. rights belong to all, not just to those who don't need others to fight for them.

So the play's stories are important, yes. But A Fierce Kind of Love, written by Suli Holum and directed by David Bradley, is no somber, dutiful spectacle. It's a transcendent, modern, and startling performance of humor and poignancy, outrage and sweetness. It leaves you with a more expansive, beautiful understanding of what it means to be human.

As director Bradley has noted, A Fierce Kind of Love is not just a play. It's an event.

The play's 16 scenes feel more authentic and relevant thanks to the inclusion of four cast members who have intellectual disabilities: Shawn Aleong, Lori McFarland, Michael McLendon, and Erin McNulty. They join five fine veteran actors - Charlie DelMarcelle, Lee Ann Etzold, Marcia Saunders, Cathy Simpson, and Brian Anthony Wilson - using song, dance, and movement to re-create watershed moments in the ID advocacy movement.

The play holds up as both a historical piece and compelling theater. That's no easy feat for a work covering content as dark as the gross neglect of intellectually disabled residents at the now-shuttered Pennhurst State School and Hospital. And as heartbreaking as an acted-out timeline of McFarland's almost annual trips to Harrisburg to beg the governor to help intellectually disabled people who have been on a waiting list for services for years and years.

Then there are stories like the dogged and tender heroism of advocates like Leona Fialkowski, a Northeast Philly mother of 11, who battled with the Philadelphia school board over the right to an education for two of her sons, who had developmental delays.

"I want what any normal mother wants," says Fialkowski, as played by Saunders. "I want all of my children to be happy, and I want them to live up to their full potential. To learn, to have friends, to live their lives."

A Fierce Kind of Love is produced by Temple University's Institute on Disabilities. Its "Visionary Voices" project, produced by Lisa Sonneborn, tells the story of Pennsylvania's disability-rights movement through oral-history interviews with the movement's leaders, preservation of documents significant to the movement, and public performance.

While A Fierce Kind of Love is the cornerstone of the project's public programming, just as compelling is "Here" - an exhibition in City Hall of photos and audio interviews with intellectually disabled adults still living and working in segregated settings.

Kathy Pentek is a volunteer who interviewed an intellectually disabled man named Joe for the exhibition. When she was preparing to meet him, she says, friends worried for her safety.

"They said, 'Are you comfortable going there? Those people are not safe!' " recalled Pentek, whom I met after last week's dress rehearsal of A Fierce Kind of Love.

"I said, 'These are just people!' Maybe we'll stop being uncomfortable when we start talking to them, hear their stories, and get to know them."

The play is a glorious vehicle to do just that. But its run isn't long enough to do justice to its potential to connect us better - and to allow audience members with intellectual disabilities to see a play whose actors might remind them of themselves.

Case in point: As I was writing this column, I got a text message from a friend who'd just heard about A Fierce Kind of Love and needed tickets for her niece, a budding actress who has Down syndrome and was eager to see the play. My friend heard I was writing about it and wondered if I could score her some tickets.

I couldn't. But I wish I could score tickets for everyone in the city. Because we need this play.

So come on, Fairy Godfunder. I know you're out there.

A Fierce Kind of Love could use a little fierce love itself.

polaner@phillynews.com

215-854-2217 @RonniePhilly

Blog: ph.ly/RonnieBlog

Columns: ph.ly/Ronnie

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