Three young actors argue onstage as the lights go up on a scene in Act3 Productions’ new staging of “By Wheel and By Wing,” an original musical depicting one family’s escape from Europe during WWII.
The three portray the youngest members of the Parnes family, who successfully evaded the Nazis and escaped to the United States at the end of the war. The children onstage are arguing with each other about who’s in charge on a firewood raid.
Ella Owen is stealing the scene. She’s portraying a young Tonia Parnes and is giving the audience fits of laughter. Perhaps the most remarkable part, however, is that everything happening onstage happened in real life, and the adult Tonia is sitting in the audience, smiling at her younger counterpart.
“I almost feel like it wasn’t us,” said Tonia, who is now known as Tina Weisz. “I feel like it couldn’t have happened, because it’s such a remarkable story.”
But it did happen.
“Everything that happens onstage is true,” said Patti Mactas, artistic director of Act3, the community theater company located in Sandy Springs Plaza. “We may have had to change the order of some events for a better flow, but the events themselves actually happened.”
According to Mactas, the project began when she boarded a plane from New York to Atlanta three years ago. She sat next to Jeannie Wechsler, who was the youngest of the Parnes children. After uncovering many different mutual friends, Mactas asked Wechsler about her accent.
“She looked at me with her big blue eyes,” Mactas said, “and asked, ‘Do you want to hear my story? I’ll tell you my story.’ I was absolutely mesmerized.”
Mactas immediately knew she wanted to stage a project depicting the Parnes’ saga. And when she considered Act3 Productions’ history of involving youth in theater, she had what she called “the perfect idea.”
“I thought, since the story was predominately about children and teenagers, wouldn’t it be great if kids could write it?” Mactas said.
Mactas needed someone to spearhead the project, so she turned to Corey-Jan Albert, a local playwright and songwriter with whom Act3 had previously worked.
“I was used to working with kids as part of Act3’s “25-hour Play Project,” which teaches middle and high school students about writing, directing and acting,” said Albert. “But when I heard about this new project, I said, ‘What do I have to do to be a part of this?’”
Albert helped select a group of 10 local high school students who interviewed Parnes family members and then wrote the script and score for the show.
“This is a project that continually surprises me,” said Dara Epstein, a student who was part of the musical’s creative process. “I never thought when we were writing this that it would sell out shows, but all of the seats are filled.”
The teens’ work was showcased in a staged reading last year, Mactas said. “A donor who wishes to remain anonymous donated $30,000 so that we could fully stage the show,” she said.
By Wheel and By Wing
Where: Act3 Productions, 6285-R Roswell Road
When: July 6-7, 8 p.m.; July 7, 2 p.m.
Now Act3 is staging the teen-written show with professional actors and musicians.
“I almost hesitate to say it was written by teens,” Albert said, “because people downplay it. But the truth is, ‘By Wheel and By Wing’ isn’t just ‘good for being written by teens,’ it’s just plain good. The students had diverse perspectives and a deep understanding of the human condition.”
For Weisz, watching her younger self onstage is “absolutely amazing.”
“My family’s journey was five years of misery. How do you fit that into two hours?” she asked. “But what they’ve done is remarkable.”