‘An incredibly gifted young guy’: cast impressed with blind Stratford actor

There’s a pretty unique actor about to take the stage as Tiny Tim in an upcoming modern-day adaptation of A Christmas Carol.

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There’s a pretty unique actor about to take the stage as Tiny Tim in an upcoming modern-day adaptation of A Christmas Carol.

His name is Jonah Manley. The Stratford resident acts, sings and plays the piano.

And he’s blind.

“This is not something that happens all the time where, at 12 years old, you get to go on stage with these titans of Canadian theatre,” Blyth Festival artistic director Gil Garrat said Friday. “And to do it further with the challenges that he has, it’s a really amazing thing to witness.”

A Huron County Christmas Carol, a new take on the Charles Dickens classic by Garrat set in Blyth and the surrounding backcountry, stars Randy Hughson as Scrooge and Marek Norman as Jacob Marley.

“He’s an incredibly gifted young guy,” Norman said Friday during a break in rehearsals. “We’re thrilled with him.”

Manley has enjoyed learning from the well-known names in the room.

“I like acting with the other actors, especially since I can learn quite a bit from them,” he said with a smile during an interview Friday from his Stratford home. “Randy Hughson’s been giving me quite a big head by saying that I’ve out-acted him.”

Manley was born blind – he has coloboma, where there are missing pieces of tissue in structures that form the eye. But that didn’t stop him from causing several wide-eyed reactions when the cast assembled for the first time earlier this month. He showed up to the first read-through with his lines “down cold,” Norman recalled.

“Which is almost unheard of in this industry,” he said. “Not only did he just know them, he understood them.”

Up until that point, the plan was to have Norman play the piano for Manley during his solo performance of Tomorrow Will Be Better – the songs are by John Powers – but he also flipped the script on that idea.

“That kid showed up on the first day of rehearsal with that song impeccable,” Garrat said. “It is a challenging piece of piano and he’s singing there, immediately playing and singing for all of us as part of that first reading. There was not a dry eye in the room.”

“Those of us who weren’t in tears were gobsmacked,” Norman said. “We couldn’t believe what a fantastic job that he did.”

Jonah Manley, who will be appearing as Tiny Tim in A Huron County Christmas Carol, practises the piano on Friday  in Stratford. (Terry Bridge/Stratford Beacon Herald)

Garrat cast Manley as Tiny Tim through a recommendation by Norman, who met Manley’s dad, John, in Stratford. The family has a website full of video clips showinf the youngster’s penchant for performing, and Garrat was intrigued.

But it’s the first time he has worked with a blind performer, Garrat said.

“This is all new territory for us, and it’s been an incredible learning experience,” he said.

The plan was to have Manley use his cane on stage – he can find his way around his home but needs it for new, unfamiliar places – but the young actor told them that simply won’t work.

“Tiny Tim isn’t going to use a cane in his own home,” Manley said. “That’s not going to make sense.”

So he doesn’t plan to use one when A Huron County Christmas Carol previews on Nov. 28 and debuts the next night. The show runs until Dec. 22. For more information and tickets, visit blythfestival.com.

tbridge@postmedia.com

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