Josh Howland, left, as “Danny” and Bess Winebarger as “Sandy,” in Jerry’s Habima Theatre’s production of “Grease: The School Version.”
Josh Howland, left, as “Danny” and Bess Winebarger as “Sandy,” in Jerry’s Habima Theatre’s production of “Grease: The School Version.”

Things started small. Saba Silverman, who had volunteered to help organize social activities for children with developmental disabilities, thought the group should see a play. “I wanted them to have every experience they could,” she said.

Her committee – called the “Very Special People committee,” or “VSP committee” — organized social outings to see traveling Broadway musicals playing at the Fox Theatre or the Atlanta Civic Center, she said. “The kids just loved it,” she said.

They were hooked. Eventually, they decided to try to stage a play of their own. “It was just, ‘let’s try it and see what happens,’” Silverman recalled.

Saba Silverman with her commemorative suitcase decorated with photos and playbills.

And so, 20 years ago, the theater company now known as Jerry’s Habima Theatre was born. The company, based in Dunwoody at the Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta, bills itself as Georgia’s only theatrical group directed and produced by professionals and featuring actors with developmental disabilities. This year’s show features more than 40 actors, Silverman said.

Over the past two decades it has performed shows such as “Guys and Dolls,” “Bye Bye Birdie,” “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” and “Fiddler on the Roof.” In 2007, the company received a Suzi Bass Award, which celebrates excellence in metro Atlanta professional theater, for its contribution to local theater.

In March, Jerry’s Habima Theatre celebrates its 20th birthday with performances of “Grease: The School Version,” a shortened version of the musical based on the Broadway show and hit movie. “It gives me such joy to see how far this theater has come in 20 years and to witness all the lives that have been deeply touched by it,” said Lois Blonder, a company benefactor and the widow of Jerry Blonder, the man the group is named for. (“Habima” is Hebrew for “the stage.”)

Their first show was Shakespearean, sort of. The group staged a 15-minute version of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.” Silverman remembers that it sold out. She also remembers that when she saw that first show, she knew the theater company would be around a while.

“I knew we were here to stay just because of what it did for the actors,” she said.

Those actors, she said, “blossomed.” She could see them changing with each show. People who had been shy or withdrawn suddenly opened up to people around them. “They went from coming in not able to say a word and their heads down to, all of a sudden, confident,” she said.

Even in the first play, the difference was easy to spot, she said. Suddenly, these actors were studying and declaiming Shakespearean dialogue. “That’s what absolutely floored us,” Silverman said. “Here, these kids had trouble speaking regular English and here they were learning paragraphs and songs in ‘English English.’ And they were fabulous.

“That first night, we were crying through our eyes and smiling with our mouths. We saw children with disabilities as not having any disabilities. They had abilities and they performed like they were on Broadway.”

Mark Benator, 52, has performed in many plays over the years.

Mark Benator acted in that first play. He’s had a role in each performance since, he said. “I’ve had a lot of great roles over the years,” he said. The Dunwoody 52-year-old reels off part after part he’s played: the rascally Kenickie in “Grease”; the butcher in “Fiddler on the Roof”; a gambler in “Guys and Dolls.” He’s playing Coach Calhoun in “Grease: The School Version,”

“Twenty years ago, I never thought I’d be involved in anything like this,” he said.

He’s so proud of the theater group that he regularly helps raise money for it, he said. “It’s great. The people there are really nice. You meet a lot of different people,” he said.

And the actors have gotten to know one another. “You see a lot of old friends,” he said. “Our cast is usually 40 to 45 people.”

At her home in Sandy Springs, Silverman keeps a special memento made to honor her work with Jerry’s Habima Theatre. It was made for her by participants in the arts program at the MJCCA. It’s a suitcase decorated with photos and playbills from many of the company’s performances.

“This is what I’m so proud of,” she said, pointing to a row of photos of actors. “Look at the smiles on these kids.”

Joe Earle

Joe Earle is Editor-at-Large. He has more than 30-years of experience with daily newspapers, including the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.