Theatre eXceptional introduced itself to the community a year ago with a presentation of Tom Griffin's The Boys Next Door, a play about four men with a variety of mental disabilities who live in a group home.
Some of the cast members were, in fact, cognitively impaired.
Now the theater production company, founded in June 2015 with the mission to provide acting and theatrical production opportunities for the disabled, has something even more ambitious planned.
Tonight and this weekend, it will present a two-hour, full-length version of The Wizard of Oz at the Largo Cultural Center. A live orchestra will accompany the performances.
The 40-member cast blends disabled actors with experienced community theater and professional actors. The goal is to reduce stigmas and enhance the learning and social environment for the special populations.
For Dodie Domino, who performs as Auntie Em, the fit was quite natural. She is a registered nurse who used to work at a group home for the disabled, and she owned and operated a theater company in Boston.
"It's been a wonderful experience," she said. "These adults have such joy in their hearts. They give me a great deal more than I can ever give them."
Sally Norris, a 24-year-old woman with Down syndrome, portrays Dorothy. Just like the character in the treasured 1939 film by the same name, Dorothy is swept away somewhere over the rainbow where she meets good friends including the Scarecrow, the Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion, as well as some spooky foes, all in her quest to see the mighty Wizard of Oz.
"It's been my dream to be this person in the show; it's really cool," she said during a rehearsal, donning pigtails, a checkered farm girl dress and red sparkly slippers. "I love acting a lot."
Director Brianna Larson, a 26-year-old graduate of the Tisch School for the Arts at New York University, said the performers have been practicing for three months and are ready for the challenge.
"I have never worked with a group of actors who work so hard," Larson said. "We went into this knowing we were setting the bar high, but we gave them the time, resources and support to reach those expectations — and they absolutely have."
Fans of Eight O'Clock Theatre, which also holds performances at the Largo Cultural Center, may remember Larson from her role as the pregnant Jeannie in Hair. She's acted in a slew of productions, here and elsewhere, including her own original work.
It was her compassion for her brother, Tyler Crose, that led her and her mother, Michelle Larson, along with friend Daniel Hayes, to found the nonprofit Blue Butterfly Productions, the parent organization for Theatre eXceptional. Blue Butterfly Productions also offers year-round classes for the disabled in all aspects of theatrical arts at the Largo Community Center.
"We wanted to create a theater company for, about and including adults with disabilities," Larson said. "Some of them are really talented and have passion for the theater and should have an opportunity to express themselves."
Crose, 35, who has Down syndrome, plays the role of the Scarecrow.
"I watched the movie 50 times to prepare for my role," he said.
Larson describes her brother as an amazingly talented performer who can also be a great comedian.
"He can't walk into any audition and be taken seriously, which kind of saddens me," she said, "so I wanted to create a place for him and others like him to practice and perfect their theater arts."