While waiting for the start of the stage version of “It’s A Wonderful Life” presented at the Nick Rodriguez Community Center in Antioch, California, when I heard that a 15 year-old kid — and one with a disability, mind you — was to play Mr. Potter, my own inward thoughts sputtered out, “No way!”
But the moment Ryan Lehfeldt made his scowling entrance, opened his mouth and, with his commanding, resonant voice boomed, “Geoooorge!” he had the audience in the palm of his hand and kept them there right to the finale, where he was saved for last in the curtain calls.
The applause that greeted him was solid and long. A star had been born. He not only pulled it off, he did it magnificently. He did not come off as a kid playing Mr. Potter. Ryan WAS Mr. Potter.
When a visitor came to his home to interview him, Ryan answered the door himself with poise and manners, took the visitor into the living room with his mother, Stacie, and after being seated, politely asked his guest if he could serve him something to drink: water, coffee or a soft drink.
He is a young man who displays remarkable maturity, both on stage and in everyday life. He is fully in control, knows who he is and is proud to be who he is — not in a cocky way, but in a refreshingly humble way.
Ryan is smaller than most of those his age. His body is slightly crooked, yet he maintains excellent posture. His delicately distorted angular face, that seems a bit too long for his thin, small, body, is a pleasant face that immediately puts one at ease as he makes eye contact and pays full attention to his visitor.
Before he was born, his doctors were not optimistic. When the pregnancy was in its seventh month, doctors didn’t know why Ryan wasn’t growing in the womb.Tests showed the possibility of Trisomy 18, meaning that he would not live long after birth … if he lived at all.
The doctors said ultrasound showed that he had a clubbed foot, a short femur and other physical problems. His mother, Stacie, was not about to have an abortion. His mom had great faith in God and prayed fervently. As Ryan’s was considered a “high risk” baby birth, his mother was taken to Alpha Bates Medical Center in Berkeley.
Ryan was born two months early, weighing in at 1.14 lbs. and 12 inches long. Doctors were afraid he would have water on his brain, blindness, and deafness, along with an 80 percent chance of cerebral palsy because he was so small.
As soon as he was born, the doctors immediately began tests. Amazingly, he did NOT have a clubbed foot or short femur like the ultrasound showed, nor the other predicted and diagnosed symptoms. His hearing was affected, but he is not deaf.
The condition he was left with is known as Russell-Silver Syndrome (RSS). But that is nothing compared to what his pre-birth tests promised. Prayer had been spectacularly answered, prompting the doctors to say that Ryan was a miracle child.
The beginning was difficult. He didn’t want to eat. He had no desire for food. When he was two, a feeding tube was placed in him which he had until he was 5. His muscle tone was and is low; he didn’t have much stamina and has battled asymmetry and asthma. He has received a growth hormone shot every day since he was about four along with another shot every 3 weeks to prevent puberty.
When he was about 3 years old, his mother took him to see his first play in a theater, which mesmerized him. He was bitten by the acting bug then and there.
When Ryan started school, he of course stood out since he looked different than the other kids. When he was in the first grade, five little toughs ganged up and were going to beat up on him.
Ryan understood the problem. They didn’t know what to do about his small stature, which made them strike out at him in fear and suspense. They simply didn’t know what to think. Ryan kept his stance, made a joke that made them laugh, won them over, and one of them said, “Hey, he’s an average kid.”
As he got older he eagerly took part in the musical “Annie” and incorporated some extra business in the role that got laughs, showing that he possessed a natural bent for acting and entertaining.
Because of his own attitude, the kids in high school (he is a freshman) treat him as an equal, and there are times that he seems to tower over them, with his stance, posture and commanding intelligent voice. His grades have always been a bit above average. Plus he is fun to be around.
He is popular in school, especially since he learned to dance in the sixth grade (even though doctors had said he could never take part in such activities). Ryan wasn’t about to sit on the sidelines and watch others dance.
With some difficulty, he taught himself how to dance to hip-hop and rap and became so good that African-American kids stopped dancing to make a circle around him to watch him as they cheered and patted him on the back afterwards. He liked the music but not the words that were often vulgar, so he simply wrote new lyrics that better fit his character.
He joined Stage Right Conservatory Theater, a group that performs in the Nick Rodriquez Community Center Theatre in Antioch, California. The director, Brian Anthony, is great with his casts, especially the kids who receive positive encouragement from him.
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Ryan learns his lines quickly and so well that, when a fellow actor would blow lines or go blank, Ryan had a way of guiding the actor back on track while staying in character, with nobody knowing what had happened.
Director Brian Anthony will get credit for “discovering” Ryan and bringing out his talent. His current role is the wizard in “The Wizard of Oz,” which ends its run on March 4th.
Watching Ryan Lehfeldt perform might prompt someone to say, “Wow! He’s GOOD for a disabled kid.” No, no, NO! Strike that from the record! Ryan is simply a good actor, period, and is absolutely star material.
End Note: Ryan is grateful to God for giving him life against all odds and plans to eventually go to seminary and study for the ministry.