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All good things must come to an end ... even if it isn't the end, really.

The special friendship of Payten Presley and Drew White, begun nine years ago on the stage of The Penguin Project of McLean County, will endure, even as their Penguin era concludes out of necessity.

They have too much in common now ... and way too many shared memories.

Among them: natural born comic Payten playing Drake the butler to charismatic Drew's Daddy Warbucks in the first-ever Penguin show, "Annie Jr." in 2009.

"That was the most fun character, because I got to be the butler with Drew as Daddy Warbucks," enthuses Payten, a huge and knowledgeable fan of the works of comic actor Don Knotts ("The Nervous Weatherman," anyone?).

For "Annie Jr." both actors got to dude it up in spiffy tuxes and looked like a matched pair, except Drew was the taller one at age 16, and remains so at 24. 

"And I got shave all the hair off my head, which was great!," notes Drew, who would go on a few years later to fuel his charisma into the lead role of con man Harold Hill in "The Music Man Jr."

The memories continue to stack up as we speak.

Payten and Drew are presently getting down to earth, literally, to play Earthworm (Payten) and Centipede (Drew) in their final Penguin teaming, "James and the Giant Peach Jr.," being performed next weekend (7 p.m. June 2-3, 2 p.m. June 4) in University High School's Stroud Auditorium.

But the bittersweet fact remains: "James" is their swan song, and Payten and Drew's time as artists with the Penguin family — the theater troupe starring special needs actors, each sharing the stage with his or her own peer mentor — has come to its natural end.

In short, they've "aged out."

That's the term, notes Penguin creative director Jackie Gunderson, for Penguins who've reach the Project troupe's maximum age limit.

You "age in" at 10, and "age out" at 24. (If you're a peer mentor — a child actor without disabilities — the range is 12 to 21.)

The age cap is necessary, says Gunderson, to allow a new crop of Penguins each year. The most the program can handle on stage is 80 members (40 artists, 40 mentors), and it has run at capacity in recent years.

"We've had to make cuts if we go over 80, which is awful," says Gunderson.

Payten Presley of Downs and Drew White of Normal are heading up the first generation that has been with Penguin from the beginning and will be leaving the fold in seasons to come.

"I know ... it's very sad," admits Drew, sharing a recent interview with his father, Jay White. "I've had a long journey with Payten ... a FUN journey."

Turnabout fair play: "Drew is my best friend now," says Payten, sharing his interview with mom Deb Presley. 

Never mind the fact that each went to a different high school (Normal West for Drew, Tri-Valley for Payten) or that each has triumphed over a different disability (Payten has Down syndrome, Drew is autistic).

"Their paths crossed because of Penguin Project," says Deb.

As did those of the parents involved, she notes. "And now we're good friends, too" ... a sentiment strongly echoed by Jay White.

No doubt about it: those good Penguin vibes are infectious.

"We were very intentional about the roles we put them in this year, so that they would get to continue their partnership and have a most special final season," says Gunderson, in her second season as Penguin's creative director. 

"They've both grown exponentially," she says of Payten and Drew's nine-year journey through their roles in other Penguin hits like "The Little Mermaid Jr.," "High School Musical Jr.," "The Music Man Jr." and "Bye, Bye Birdie (Young Performers' Edition)."

(For the record, these "Jr." editions are hour-long digest versions of the full-length versions adapted for youth-based theater productions.)

"Payten and Drew are both incredible in figuring out, with the help of their mentors, what works for them," Gunderson says.

"And then they run with it."

Since both artists are also Special Olympics athletes (in addition to all their many other non-Penguin activities), they do know how to run.

"Each of them makes my job really easy," laughs Gunderson. "I just kind of take a step back. If I give them too much guidance, I'll just mess with all that's going on in their brains."

Which is plenty.  

"Through Penguin, Payten learned his love of dancing and singing," says Deb.

But especially dancing, which he will continue to do competitively as a member of Stacy's Dance Factory.

Hip hop, solo tap, duets ... you name it, Payten dances it.

Like all Penguin artists, Payten will have his mentor, Josh Kuhn, close at hand on stage at next weekend's performances — as will Drew, whose mentor is Breanne D'Costa.

"Payten can memorize all of his lines and songs," says Deb. "The mentor is there as his safety net. As the actors get better, the mentors are not needed as much."

For Drew's dad Jay, The Penguin Project is nothing less than "a gift to the parents who get watch their kids get up stage and do stuff you didn't know they could ever do .. they get up there and do something that YOU can't do."

No argument there from Drew.

"I've had a lot fun ... fun with my friends, fun with the audience," he says. "It's helped build up my confidence ... and everything else."

"It's been amazing watching Payten come to life on stage ... to watch his personality come out through the various roles he's played," says Deb Presley. "I never knew he had it in him. Theater has given him another purpose in is life."

"Bittersweet" is the word that best sums up the moment finally at hand," she adds.

"It's being the last year is all we've talked about," agrees Payten.

When thing everyone agrees about regarding next week's farewell performances?

"Oh, my, the tears will be flowing," as director Gunderson puts it. "I probably won't be able to see anything."

Follow Dan Craft on Twitter: @pg_dcraft


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