Local actor Laura Giknis has been preparing for the role since childhood.
While growing up, Queen Village resident Laura Giknis remembers her favorite book being Roald Dahl’s classic whimsical tale of “Matilda.”
Coincidentally, some years later, the local actor is taking on the role of one of the story’s protagonists, and, perhaps, one of literature’s most heartfelt teachers, Miss Honey, in the Walnut Street Theatre’s production of the “Roald Dahl’s MATILDA the Musical” by playwright Dennis Kelly and music and lyrics by Australian comedian Tim Minchin.
Although the narrative has been told through a few vehicles, including the 1996 film directed by Danny DeVito, Giknis feels theater is an effective approach to elevate the themes of the story — confidence, empowerment and accepting one’s self.
“I feel like theater is mirroring that — where this medium is letting these kids find themselves just as ‘Matilda’ is finding herself through this story,” she said.
While the show allows for the young ensemble to tap into these strengths, for Giknis, a seasoned thespian, she feels of all the roles she’s embodied at the Walnut, Miss Honey allows her to seek the same kind of spirit.
Giknis, a native of Ambler, Pa., studied performing arts at West Chester University before delving into Philadelphia’s vast theater scene over the past decade, carrying out roles in a handful of local troupes and companies, including 11th Hour Theatre Company and Theatre Horizon, People’s Light & Theatre, Bristol Riverside Theatre and Arden Theatre Company.
But, she found a particular footing at America’s oldest theater, clinching the classic sweet-turned-sassy character of Sandy during the Walnut’s 2013 production of “Grease.”
“It was so daunting but I was so incredibly excited to land Sandy at the Walnut as my first show here,” she recalled. “I was so, so honored to be able to hold that role and that they gave me that responsibility. It was so wonderful.”
Following Sandy, she carried out a few more Walnut shows, including “Bad Jews” and “High Society” before playing Sister Mary Roberts in “Sister Act” and Sophie in this past year’s production of “Mamma Mia!”
While she’s treasured each of her shows at the Walnut, Giknis says there’s something particularly idiosyncratic about “Roald Dahl’s MATILDA the Musical,” as the composition seems to parallel the characters it accompanies, including the organized chaos occupying the mind of the lead 5-year-old with telekinesis.
“This music is incredibly complex,” Giknis said. “It’s just like the themes of ‘Matilda.’ At first glance, you might think it’s just a kids story, but even the music shows that it’s so much more than that. And, I love how, because it’s so complex, it kind of shows you what’s going in inside Matilda’s brain.”
Giknis says audiences often wonder how the show, which received 11 Tony Award nominations after it premiered on Broadway in 2013, delivers some of the iconic “Matilda” moments as depicted in the movie and illustrated in the book, such as levitated chalk drawing against a blackboard.
And while the Walnut maintains such spectacles with “theater magic,” it aims for audiences to engage in the company’s other principle takeaways of the show. The key, of course, being the importance of reading, as audiences are encouraged to partake in a book drive being held during the show.
“Ms. Honey says, ‘By this lamp, I can read, and I am set free,’” Giknis said. “And it is so true to be able to remember in this world of technology and iPhones and movies that you take time for yourself and go back to the basics and read and be able to allow yourself to be taken away into another world.”
As for Giknis, who will embody Miss Honey through the end of the show’s run on Jan. 6, she says performing in this show has allowed for her own sense of escapism.
Portraying the humble educator signifies more than finally playing an adult role, as opposed to Giknis’ frequent portrayal of younger characters. But even more so, both Miss Honey and Giknis seem to be their truest selves when thriving in their elements — whether that’d be among students or theatergoers.
“When Miss Honey’s in the classroom, I’d probably say, you see how she is alive, and she is thriving in that classroom, because that’s where she’s born to be, and then you see her with the Trunchbull,” Giknis said. “And she’s very timid and shy. I can relate to that in a theater aspect of — I may not be that outgoing normally, but when I am on stage, I feel like I can really be myself, and I’m the happiest when I’m doing that.”
Info: Matilda is running at the Walnut Street Theatre through Jan. 6.
To find out showtimes or to purchase tickets, visit: www.walnutstreettheatre.org/season/show/roald-dahls-matilda-the-musical.