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Wilkens’ terrific performance tops solid ‘Sister Kenny’s Children’ at History Theatre

Fueled by a typically terrific performance by Claudia Wilkens, “Sister Kenny’s Children,” now paying at the History Theatre, proves to be a satisfying look at the efforts of the titular character, who revolutionized the treatment of polio in the 1940s.

The play follows Sister Kenny (her title comes from her service in the Australian army, not as a Catholic nun) from the bush to greater Australia and eventually to America, where she finds a sympathetic ear about her polio treatment in Minnesota. Much of the play is focused here, as Kenny’s treatment spreads across the country and she races to complete her work in the face of advancing Parkinson’s disease.

The story is compelling, but the script by Doris Baizley gets trapped by detailing apparently everything interesting that ever happened to Sister Kenny, and a good chunk of this isn’t directly related to her efforts to combat polio — nor does it even fully illustrate her character. It doesn’t help that it’s all framed by a clichéd “open with character at death’s door, and then go back through her life” structure.

Amid this, there are plenty of terrific scenes. Baizley doesn’t portray Kenny as a saint, ­ allowing stubbornness and a desire to be in the spotlight to come through. For her part, Wilkens digs into these contradictions to craft a complex, driving and living character.

The rest of the cast is made up of students from the St. Paul Conservatory for Performing Artists, who do a solid job throughout with often-tough roles as they play a mixture of young patients, doctors, newspapermen and other characters. As Kenny’s ward, Mary, Ashton Schneider stands toe-to-toe with Wilkens and delivers a strong performance.

There are moments ­ — such as the opening, when the children are heard pounding on the door and pleading for help; or a moment on shipboard where they play the part of a swaying hull ­ — that the show reaches for some real on-stage magic. For the most part, the directing by Ron Peluso is, like most of the production, solid, but not spectacular.

“Sister Kenny’s Children” runs through Feb. 14 at the History Theatre, 30 E. Tenth St., St. Paul. Tickets are $10-$30. For more information, call 651-292-4323 or visit online.

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