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A Wheelchair on Broadway Isn’t Exploitation. It’s Progress.

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March 25, 2017

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There’s a wheelchair onstage at the Belasco Theater, and it’s drawing an abundance of attention. There’s also a wheelchair onstage at a small theater not far away, and it’s drawing practically no attention at all. The gulf between the two says quite a lot.

At the Belasco, the Broadway house on West 44th Street, the wheelchair is one of the conspicuous elaborations the director Sam Gold has brought to his production of “The Glass Menagerie,” the beloved Tennessee Williams drama. The chair isn’t just a prop; it’s a necessity for the actress playing Laura, Madison Ferris, who has muscular dystrophy.

That bit of casting is, of course, a significant change from the shy girl with a limp that Williams called for in his play. And Mr. Gold’s staging leaves no doubt that Ms. Ferris is not some able-bodied actress pretending to have a disability. He has her enter by painstakingly climbing stairs, one of several times that he takes her out of the wheelchair and confronts the audience with the difficulties of having severely limited mobility.

Some leading critics have objected to the transformation of Williams’s subtle play about a family enveloped in denial into something more strident. The kindest objections say that Mr. Gold’s interpretation simply doesn’t mesh well with the text; harsher ones on theater chat boards have called his use of Ms. Ferris exploitative.

Perhaps these detractors are focusing on moments like the one in which Amanda, Laura’s mother, tells her: “You’re not crippled. You just have a little defect — hardly noticeable, even!” How can such a line make sense when there’s a wheelchair onstage?

For one thing, this is a self-described “memory play,” told through the recollections of Laura’s brother, Tom (played by Joe Mantello). And memory is an interpretation of the past, not a literal playback of it.

But, more than that, to live with a child with a disability is to be both isolated — as this family is — and susceptible to what seems to others like an unreality. My own daughter, who has a serious disability called Rett syndrome, is just three years younger than the 23-year-old Laura. Is it easy for me to imagine a parent who sees a vastly different child than the outside world sees? You bet.

As for the charge of exploitation, I read that as, “It was unpleasant to see Ms. Ferris pull herself along the floor by her arms; I prefer that people with disabilities remain invisible, as they so often are.” Broadway audiences are accustomed to seeing perfect bodies doing entertaining dance steps. Guess what, Broadway? One in five Americans has a disability, according to the census bureau.

Read the full story in the NY Times

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