Fort Worth — Only 330 people in the United States have the rare neurological disorder called Stiff Person Syndrome. Literally, the odds are one in a million—and actor/playwright Sherry Jo Ward is one of the few.
Her doctor called it Stiff Man Syndrome at first. But by the time the office phoned her with a definite diagnosis, it had become “Stiff Person Syndrome.”
Ward shakes her head in admiration. “I tell you,” she drawls, “those feminists are on top of everything!”
And that’s the last laugh line I’ll shamelessly steal from Stiff, Ward’s remarkably honest account—equal parts pain and laughter—of her journey with the disease that interrupted her busy life a few years back. Ward premiered her solo show at this year’s Festival of Independent Theatres (FIT) in Dallas. Stiff was cited by the Dallas-Fort Worth Theater Critics Forum as one of the year’s Outstanding New Plays—and Ward herself for an Outstanding Performance by an Actress.
Produced by Risk Theater Initiative and directed by Marianne Galloway, Stiff will play in Stage West’s studio space every Tuesday evening through October—while Ward spends the rest of her time on the company’s main stage in the Aaron Posner Chekhov adaptation Life Sucks.
A tall “Amazon” of a woman (her word) and busy mother of two, Ward recalls her life as an in-demand actor, a go-to professional who “knew how to make an entrance,” she says with a toss of the head. (Ward’s recent credits include International Falls and Life Sucks. at Stage West, Precious Little at Echo Theatre, and Who Am I This Time? (& Other Conundrums of Love) at Circle Theatre.)
These days, she enters with a smile, but slowly, leaning heavily on a walker. Stiff Person Syndrome causes a painful, unpredictable cluster of symptoms: fatigue, numbness, muscle spasms and rigidity that come and go, trembling limbs, a sense that the body is filling with concrete. She is vulnerable to the world around her—symptoms can be brought on by sharp sounds, touch, stressful situations, even a bumpy ride. There’s no cure, and this is a “gets worse” situation.
Ward has been married to fellow actor Thomas Ward (International Falls, Straight White Men at Second Thought Theatre and recently Adding Machine: A Musical at Theatre Three) for more than 20 years. They have two children, and Ward—in talking with a patient snarkiness about things people shouldn’t say, tells how often she’s encouraged to remember how much her kids need her. Like that’s something most Moms forget, she grins wearily.
For a solo show the stage feels as populated as a city sidewalk: Ward creates quick and telling portraits of her physical therapist, her mother-in-law Pat (who offered her son’s family a home and tons of day-to-day help), the driver of the MITS bus (Fort Worth’s “mobility impaired” transit service), and the people who ride on that “short bus.” She lets herself be interviewed by Diane Sawyer (will she cry?) and tries to decide if talking to Ellen would have been better.
Projections on a screen behind Ward’s cozy orange armchair and ottoman keep a running flow of information, images and jokes going behind her shoulder—and a helper sits onstage ready to prompt Ward with a line (she didn’t need it) or help her physically. (During the performance reviewed, Ward was helped to a mat on the floor, and continued her performance until she could sit up comfortably again. Also, her cane responded to its name like a well-trained dog—but that was For This Night Only, it seems. “Y’all did see that, right?” she asked, turning big-eyed to the audience.)
Ward’s story is anything but generic. She has a voice and a perspective on living with a disability, steeped in her particular brand of irony and humor—and the clear-eyed talent to turn her life into galvanizing theater.
But her journey won’t be unfamiliar to others who have come to grips with “special” conditions in their own lives—or in the life of someone they love. The journey goes from “where am I?” and “what’s happening?” to “I don’t belong here”—and then into an odd space that’s big enough to throw its arms around the eternally mixed feelings, from rage and frustration to moments of joy, and to a kind of combat-zone humor that will get you through the day. And there’s Ward’s revelation of how vital a moment of simple comfort can be—sometimes coming from people she (and we) would never have met if “this” hadn’t happened.
You won’t hear any platitudes in this one-hour show. (Well, there’s a cliché line about pity, but Ward turns it quickly—and hilariously—on its head.) Ward’s style is direct, emotional, revealing, and true. Playing herself in Stiff, or playing the next night as “Pickles” in Life Sucks., this is an actor, showing what she can do.
Now here’s a cliché: You go, girl.