I have never experienced a performance quite like Stiff before. Most plays exist as art underpinned by some aspect of life, from the realistic to the absurd, the tragic to the comic, the trite and predictable to the original and unexpected. The Art defines reality on stage. Risk Theater Initiative’s entrant in the 2017 Festival of Independent Theatre, Stiff, written and performed by Sherry Jo Ward, with direction and creative input by Marianne Galloway and Jessica Cavanaugh, turns the representation mode completely on its head to profound effect. Generally I write a composite review of the two “sections” of FIT plays. Stiff, as undoubtedly one of the most amazing dramatic productions in the D-FW region in 2017, warrants a solo critique.
“I’m here. I love you.”
In Stiff, Ward’s life experience of acquiring and learning to adapt to an incurable, degenerative neurological disease informs the art, instead of becoming subsumed by the artistic expression. Reality defines the Art on stage, with no fourth wall and no safe cloak of imaginative distance. Ward’s unflinching, brilliant portrayal of a horrific personal experience, a concoction of brutal honesty spiced with earthy humor, shocks the viewer completely with its veracity and humanity. It provides a visceral, cathartic experience expected in masterful, majestic productions of Sophocles’ or Shakespeare’s works. Instead, it’s just one woman, an accomplished actor, wearing simple, everyday clothing, working with an overstuffed chair, an ottoman, her cane and walker…no special lighting or sound effects to control the mood. Just her voice, her thoughts and her body trying to turn her into a pain-ridden nerve and muscle jumble with uncontrollable spasms. It creates uncommonly good theatre.
Stiff Person Syndrome sounds comical, almost made up. It certainly doesn’t sound threatening. On medicinenet.com:
DESCRIPTION/SYMPTOMS: “Stiff Person Syndrome is characterized by fluctuating muscle rigidity in the trunk and limbs and a heightened sensitivity to stimuli such as noise, touch, and emotional distress, which can set off muscle spasms. Abnormal postures, often hunched over and stiffened, are characteristic of the disorder. People with Stiff Person Syndrome can be too disabled to walk or move, or they are afraid to leave the house because street noises, such as the sound of a horn, can trigger spasms and falls. It affects twice as many women as men and is considered a rare neurological disorder with features of an autoimmune disease.”
PROGNOSIS: “Treatment…will improve the symptoms of Stiff-Person syndrome, but will not cure the disorder. Most individuals with Stiff Person Syndrome have frequent falls and because they lack the normal defensive reflexes; injuries can be severe. With appropriate treatment, the symptoms are usually well controlled.” There is no known cure.
Those are the cold facts. Ward’s reality performance reveals the day-to-day impact without reserve or candy coat veneer. Using upstage photo projection, she defines the play’s arc through a fantasy interview with TV personality Diane Sawyer, infusing the “conversation” with bits of slightly bawdy humor that provide relief from the almost incomprehensible decimation of the disease. And then she shows a soulful vulnerability that sets up the cathartic response that makes Stiff one of the most memorable dramatic performances to grace a regional stage in a long time. I don’t walk away pitying Sherry Jo Ward. I am awestruck with admiration and the beauty of the performance’s tragedy. There are other fine performances and productions at FIT 17. Do not miss Stiff.
Namaste, Sherry Jo Ward. I only wish you were acting it, not living it.
Stiff continues in rotation 7/22, 7/27 and 8/5
The Festival of Independent Theatres runs July 14-August 5 at Bath House Cultural Center
Photos by Mark Oristano