Tennessee William’s The Glass Menagerie opened at The Belasco Theater on Broadway recently with Sally Field in the title role of the overbearing, tortured mother Amanda and Joe Montello as her son Tom who desperately needs to leave home in order to escape his mother and establish his independence despite his love for his crippled sister Laura. As those who have read or seen the play might remember, Laura is a pathologically shy girl with a severe limp who blossoms for a few hours when a young man who works with Tom comes to call, someone she had been intensely attracted to when they were together in high school; only to have her hopes dashed when she finds out toward the end of the evening that he is engaged to be married.
In the past the role of Laura has been played by non-disabled actresses who walk slowly with a limp as a way to display Laura’s disability and her need to be reclusive. Not so in this production. Twenty-five year old actress Madison Ferris, who has muscular dystrophy and is permanently confined to a wheelchair, is now the first actor or actress playing a major role on Broadway from a wheelchair. Not that Ms. Ferris by any means stays in her wheelchair throughout the production. From the time she painstakingly hoists herself up some stairs onto the stage while Sally Field carries her wheelchair for her, to the several times she takes herself in and out of her wheelchair in order to not only confront the audience with the difficulties of having severely limited mobility, but to also bring a whole new dimension to the iconic part of Laura, Ms. Ferris significantly pushes the boundaries of theater into the real world about as far as they have been pushed lately.
Just to be clear, this is not some small theater where tickets go for $25 and where an actor with cerebral palsy might play the part of a character who suffers from the same affliction. This is the Belasco Theater on West 44th Street in Manhattan with two-time Oscar winner Sally Field playing the iconic role of Amanda and Joe Montello, one of the leading actors from Tony Kushner’s Angels in America playing Tom. In other words, this is as big as theater gets, and by confronting the audience with her condition as she stretches the part of Laura in its physical aspects far past where it has ever been before, Madison Ferris is doing something truly groundbreaking.
A recent article in American Theatre concerning the biases that still exist toward the disabled in the theater community makes mention of how nearly a hundred years ago a blind Helen Keller traveled the country telling her story, along with many other performers with disabilities who participated in various vaudeville and sideshows. But since then the prospect of watching performers overcome their disabilities in such public forums has often turned from an ennobling experience to something representative of exploitation and fear. “There was a time when people with unique disabilities could make a living because of their disability,” says Howard Sherman, senior strategy consultant for the Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts. “But the idea of looking at people with disabilities has become unfortunately over time socially unacceptable.” As many of us are already aware, these days when disability is depicted onstage, it is often dramatized within some shallow, stereotypical story of heroism and courage, with roles in such productions being too rarely offered to actors or actresses who have the actual disabilities.
Hopefully, people like Madison Ferris will begin to change all that as more stories having to do with various life challenges are performed onstage by the actual people who are dealing with those challenges in the real world. In addition, pushing theater out into the real world where theatergoers are confronted with the actual flesh and blood incantations of various social issues, rather than through actors and actresses who are merely representative of them, will break down the wall between theater and real life even further, as companies such as The Living Theater in New York City have been attempting to do for years with their performances in the streets of Manhattan.
When Tony Kushner’s Angels in America first appeared on Broadway in 1993, and the scene appeared early on in the play where the character Prior Walter shows his lover Louis Ironson the Karposi sarcoma lesion on the underside of his arm, that which represents the appearance of the AID’s virus, many in the theater were watching with the same lesions somewhere on their bodies. In those moments, the actors and theatergoers were sharing a reality that transcended what was occurring on the stage of the Walter Kerr Theater as the play itself was pushed into the real world beyond it to the point where the two became one. This is what groundbreaking performances life that of Madison Ferris do. They bring theater and real life together as one and the same.