HANOVER PARK, Ill. — Director Les Mayfield pulls off a fairly creditable remake of the classic "Miracle on 34th Street," but there is one scene, lasting only a minute or two, in which the holiday themes of faith and charity are especially crystallized.
In the scene, a young deaf girl is brought to sit on the lap of Kriss Kringle at the fictional Cole's department store. Kringle (Richard Attenborough), who hasn't been told of the child's disability, asks her what she would like for Christmas. After her mother informs him that her child is deaf and that all she wanted was to sit on Santa's lap, Kringle summons his seasonal powers and begins a sign-language conversation.
The stoic girl is transformed on camera with a delighted, surprised smile, signing back her answers, much to the tearful surprise of her mother--and more than a few audience members.
As it happens, there is something even more touching about the scene: It is acted by 5-year-old Sami Krieger, the second of three deaf children born to Jay and Linda Krieger, both of whom are also deaf.
In the living room of their modest duplex in Hanover Park, a middle-class suburb of Chicago, Sami fidgets in her father's lap, grappling with a temporary case of acute shyness, while her sisters Amanda, 6, and Wanda, 1, look on.
Jay Krieger, with the help of a sign-language interpreter, says of making the film, "The experience was wonderful, really great. The (John) Hughes (production) people treated Sami like royalty, giving her a trailer with a star that had her name on it, which made her feel special," he says.
"My wife had mixed feelings about it, and so did I at first, but if she decides to do something like this again, I think that would be fine with us."
Sami, all warmed up for her interview, signs: "It was really fun being in the movie. Being with Santa and seeing all those toys was the best part," though it was "hard," she says, to pretend it was Christmas in the middle of a sweltering Chicago summer.
"I wish I could have pretended it was Easter, because that's my favorite holiday," she says.
In the original, it is a Dutch war orphan who pays a magical visit to Santa, who instinctively knows her native language and sings to her in Dutch. Hughes rewrote the script, substituting a hearing-impaired child.
"When I read the scene with the deaf girl," says Mayfield in a phone interview, "that represented the reason why this movie could be remade in relation to a more modern view of the world. And I think this had to be an honest moment--it would only work with a real deaf girl, who probably never sat on Santa's lap."
After a five-state search for such a girl, Mayfield's casting department found Sami through a Chicago audition, sponsored in part by a local center for the deaf. With her family and a translator on the set for two days, Sami endured the controlled chaos of the environment with nary a mistake.
"The scene tore my heart out," says Mayfield, 34, who was lauded in 1991 for his brutally stark documentary, "Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse."
And apparently, Mayfield's wasn't the only heart captured. Attenborough says he asked Mayfield not to rehearse Sami, who came to the set unaware that he was going to sign a reply to her request for a Christmas present.
"So when I signed 'What is your name?' the surprise on her face was genuine,' " Attenborough recalls.
"And after the scene, she signed 'Thank you' to me. Well, I was gone, I can tell you. That got me," he thumps his heart, "right there."