Healing Touch

Actress Claudia Wilkens tackles the role of Sister Elizabeth Kenny

When Hollywood came calling on Elizabeth Kenny in Minneapolis, the famous nurse set one condition for her biopic: Vivacious actress Rosalind Russell would play the leading role. Less important was the fee of $100,000—no trifling sum in the 1940s—which would go in trust to her 17 nephews. Kenny could be insistent and she could be selfless. In either case, she tended to get her way.

Defying medical orthodoxy, Kenny cured children with paralytic polio with hot compresses and muscle manipulation—now tenets of modern physical therapy. Her local legacy endures in a clinic—the Sister Kenny Rehabilitation Institute—and in a new play, Sister Kenny’s Children, premiering this month at the History Theatre in St. Paul.

Though Kenny didn’t have a chance to cast this production—she died of Parkinson’s disease in 1952—she couldn’t have found a more forceful presence than Guthrie and Jungle theater veteran Claudia Wilkens, who will play Kenny. A sort of theatrical institution by now, Wilkens hosted the 2009 Ivey Awards with her husband of 33 years, Richard Ooms (their son, Michael Ooms, yet another actor in the family, recently played Scrooge in A Klingon Christmas Carol). She recently talked about what turns an ordinary woman like Kenny into a crusader.

Do people under 40 know anything about Sister Kenny?
I don’t think so. Even if they know who she is, they think she’s a nun. And she’s not! She never was.

So if she wasn’t a nun, what was she?
She was a bush nurse. She didn’t even go to school. She learned from doctors in the bush of Australia. She became a nurse during World War I. On the British troop ships, the nurses were called Sisters.

Was she a normal young woman? Did she go on dates?
She didn’t have any real interest. I haven’t read about her being homosexual. But there was a moment when I thought that she might have been. When her ward, Mary—an orphan girl she took in—got engaged, she was very upset about it. And it made me wonder if she didn’t really love Mary.

What ambitions brought Sister Kenny to America?
They paid for her to come here—the doctors in Minnesota. I think she felt they were going to take her seriously. And she was going to get her word out. And that’s what she wanted. She wanted to do good. She wanted to help these children. And she did, hugely. But she was never taken seriously by the doctors. She was a woman in a time when women didn’t play a big role in that particular part of medical practice.

Minnesota, by reputation, hasn’t been a place that gives a warm reception to big personalities.
She was a pretty big character from what I’ve read. And that’s why they asked me to play her! That’s kind of in my nature. I have an old friend I haven’t seen for a while, and she wrote me an e-mail after seeing [me in] A Serious Man: “That’s the perfect part for you, Claudia—a woman to be reckoned with.” And Sister Kenny was a woman to be reckoned with.

What was she like physically?
Rosalind Russell said Sister Kenny looked like a big Sherman tank. I think she was a big girl—a big-boned girl. Like me!

Does somebody else play Sister Kenny as a young woman?
No. It will be me. But I don’t have to run around. It’s not a movie. I can be young!

When was the last time you played a teenager?
Probably on the radio. I played Juliet on the radio once—back in California in my young days.

You’ve performed in plays by the 20th century’s dramatic giants: Beckett, Albee, Pinter. But you haven’t played a lot of romantic leads.
I played some. But I was mostly a character actor—and that’s fine. I remember when I was in high school, I tried out for the school play, and I didn’t get the part of the leading lady because I was too tall—I was taller than the leading man. And I remember walking home in tears. I played a secretary. Then the next year, I played a really great character part in Anastasia: the dowager empress. And I thought, okay, if that’s where I’m going….

A 1952 poll identified Sister Kenny as the most admired woman in America. Number two was Eleanor Roosevelt—whom you’ve also portrayed in a one-woman show.
I know. That’s so weird. Another woman to be reckoned with. I have a great love for that particular piece. I still do it at women’s clubs. There’s a lot of women—and men—who still remember her and it’s wonderful for them to see her again. And many people say I’ve got her—whatever that is. It isn’t just the voice. It’s the passion. She had such passion for what she believed in—when she finally realized what it was she believed in she did it. And she was not shy about letting people know how she felt.

What does it feel like to expand into that kind of historical persona?
It feels wonderful. It isn’t that you feel you’re her or that you could even start to be her. You just feel good. Because the audience has loved it and wanted it and taken it. It’s like giving a gift to somebody that they really like. That’s what acting is for me. You know, it’s more so every year.

Is there anyone on the front pages of today’s papers who reminds you of Sister Kenny?
Hillary. I think Hillary Clinton is a wonderful woman. There’s a lot of stuff she’s carrying around with her on her back. But I think basically in her heart she’s trying to do good in the world. And she’s in the position to do it. I get kind of emotional. I do. I wanted her to win the presidency.

You had your own experience with physical therapy after you fell onstage at the Jungle Theater this year and broke an arm.
I broke my elbow. It was toward the end of the first act of Souvenir, where I was playing Florence Foster Jenkins—another woman to be reckoned with. She came from a wealthy family. And when they all died, she wanted to become a singer. She could hardly carry a tune. She was terrible. Anyway, I was all excited and I was walking across the stage. And there was a pouf—a footstool. We all knew it was there. But it had wheels on it, and I think it moved a little bit. I don’t know. But I walked right into that pouf and I went flat down. I fell on this elbow and I smashed it. The doctor said it was like an explosion went off in there. There were all these little shards. He said he was throwing pieces away.

So did they bring you out of the theater in an ambulance?
Oh yes. It was on a Friday that it happened. Surgery was on Sunday. I was in the hospital three days, and we didn’t do the shows that weekend. I went on that Tuesday.

Why did you go back onstage so soon?
Because! There was no understudy. You have to. So I did.

Michael Tortorello is a writer-at-large for Minnesota Monthly.