When the lights go up on the first act of Will Eno’s play, Middletown, on the main stage of Chicago’s famed Steppenwolf Theater, Michael Patrick Thornton is on stage. He sits in a wheelchair on the streetcorner, wearing a faded red flannel shirt and a dingy baseball cap turned backwards. He nibbles on a hunk of pound cake and drinks whiskey out of a bottle in a brown paper bag. Thornton plays the role of Craig, a restless, low-paid mechanic with an unruly beard who floats aimlessly through a lonely American small town, killing time. Craig is more a danger to himself than to others — he has a problem with alcohol. He rummages through the trash cans behind the hospital in search of painkillers. He’s been in trouble with the law.
In the opening scene, a cop tells Craig to move along. Craig does so, reluctantly, but just to teach Craig a lesson about the uncertainty of life, the cop chokes him with his nightstick for a few seconds.
Later, in a monologue to the audience, Craig says, “If I had more self-esteem, more stick-to-itiveness, I might have been a murderer.”
After some performances of Middletown, there’s an open discussion between the audience and members of the Steppenwolf artistic staff. Inevitably, Thornton says, someone in the audience asks why Craig is in a wheelchair. The standard answer, Thornton says, is that Craig is not in a wheelchair but the actor who plays him is.
St. Patrick’s Surprise
Thornton’s face is familiar (but without the beard he grew to become Craig) as Dr. Gabriel Fife, a regular on the ABC television drama, Private Practice. Thornton says he delights in playing a role where a wheelchair user is not only a doctor but is also “sexually active, intelligent and funny.” One of Thornton’s most treasured fan letters confirms to him that being Fife also serves a high political purpose for people with disabilities. “I got fan mail from a woman in Texas who said that her son — who’s a quadriplegic in high school — asked out a blon
de cheerleader to the prom because if Dr. Fife can get a hot chick, so can he. I’ve always thought the best way I could use the shitstorm that happened to me to help out the disabled community was to be as visible and productive and good at my job as I could without defining myself by a real bad fucking card that I drew. That’s how I’m interested in furthering our great, great uphill battle to be seen as equal.”
Late at night on St. Patrick’s Day, 2003, Thornton walked into the emergency room of the same Chicago hospital where he was born. “For any son-of-a-cop Irish kid from Chicago, St. Pat’s means the exact some thing: You get up early, you have a breakfast at someone’s house and you start drinking.” Then you go to the St. Patrick’s Day parade downtown.
This was a rather sedate St. Pat’s Day compared to some of the other standards Thornton had set for excessive partying. He only drank about five beers all day. Thornton and his friends Julie and John picked up Taco Bell carry-out. They went to Julie’s house. Thornton felt an excruciating pain in his back, neck and shoulder. “I vaguely remember screaming,” he says. John drove him to the ER. “Within 20 minutes I was on life support.”
At the time, Thornton was 24, a bright, rising star on the Chicago theater scene. He was a graduate of the acting school at Steppenwolf. He won local awards for his acting. In 2001, along with his good friend, playwright Will Nedved, he founded the Gift Theater, a 30-seat storefront theater in Chicago’s working-class Jefferson Park neighborhood, where Thornton grew up.
The diagnosis was a spinal stroke. After emerging from an induced coma, Thornton went to the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago. After 12 days at RIC he had another, more debilitating stroke. His predominant emotion, he says, was terror. “Terror about how it happened, how to proceed, what it meant.”
But in a strange way, terror has been a strong motivating force in Thornton’s life. He was terrified by, and thus attracted to, playing the role of Craig. He says it’s the most physically, mentally and emotionally challenging role he’s ever played. “My resting energy is a lot more peaceful than his. His adrenaline is a lot faster than mine. This constant angst and searching is a little bit of a tempo change. I’m more sedate.” And there has to be something daunting about every play he chooses to produce as artistic director of the Gift. “We’ve simply done plays that we loved and terrified us.”
This same impulse to wrestle with rather than flee the raging monsters he encounters guided him through his odyssey through recovery and rehab and back on to the stage.
Why does he roll that way? “Why not? Why not try something that you have absolutely no idea how you’re going to be able to do it?”
Moment of Transcendence
In rehab, Thornton saw other newly disabled people with a look of emptiness and resignation in their eyes. “They had completely written off any possibility of a future.” But because the spinal cord injury floor was full, Thornton ended up on the pediatric floor, even though he was an adult. This experience made him feel “oddly grateful” for what happened to him. “These were 5-year-old little people who had just had their hands and arms burned off in ridiculous fires but were smiling and excited to go to McDonald’s. They were kids who weren’t buckled in by their negligent mothers and ended up sliding across the Dan Ryan Expressway at 80 miles an hour and had to have pieces of their skull removed. They had weird forms of cancer that people were still trying to give a name to. They were the definition of innocent bystanders. At least I’d had a good 24 years of having fun and screwing around before I had to deal with my curveball.
“I fast forwarded through those stages of grief and went immediately to ‘I’m gonna get back as much as I possibly can.’” His goal was 100 percent recovery, meaning full physical recovery. “I was very stubborn. I worked as hard as I could in therapy. I cracked jokes a lot and somehow survived it. I used to do PowerPoint spreadsheets and tracked this and tracked that.” He reached the point where he could walk one-half mile in a walker, though it took four hours.
But when rehab ended, it was a harsh abrupt shift of gears into the real world. “It’s like, ‘Have a good life. Here’s a binder.’” Thornton went through a period of self-imposed exile. He couldn’t return to his previous apartment because it was now inaccessible. So his parents ramped the Jefferson Park ranch house where he grew up and they still live.
It was difficult for Thornton to motivate himself to leave the house. He had spells of panic and anxiety. “What if it happens again?” he thought. Some doctors said he’d never even talk again, let alone regain much physical function. What if next time they’re right? He was searching for a context for what happened to him, a story. He wanted there to be a clear cause and effect, some action he could take or not take that would give him control of his destiny. “The real moment of transcendence happens when you go, ‘You know what, there is no story. There is no control.’ You can start to enjoy that there is no control. My life as an improviser really only started seriously after I got sick. I started to get into not knowing, giving over control, not being able to guarantee anything.”
He took a class in improvisational comedy at Second City. Again, he said to himself, “I want to do something that terrifies me.” He became so addicted to the art form and so proficient at it that he was teaching improv at Columbia College in Chicago when Private Practice called. Every Wednesday night at the Gift, he performs in an improv show called Natural Gas. Thornton says improv has been a “tremendously healing agent” for him.
Playing the Guy Next Door
In 2006 Thornton, using a wheelchair, won a Joseph Jefferson Award, the Chicago version of the Tony Award, for his performance in The Good Thief at the Gift. He was nominated again last year. But Thornton says Steppenwolf is the only theater besides his own that consistently auditions and employs him. That’s not bad company, considering many famous actors like John Malkovich, Gary Sinese and Laurie Metcalf have come out of Steppenwolf.
“I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve had some pretty bad auditions,” says Thornton. But he says he can’t help but wonder whether the lack of opportunity stems from an aversion directors and casting directors have to his wheelchair. He believes this reluctance is mostly of a logistical nature, such as concerns about how to make the set, backstage, etc., accessible. So they don’t bother to call.
Martha Lavey, Steppenwolf’s artistic director, says Thornton’s talent trumps everything in her eyes. “From the first time that I saw Michael act, I was compelled by him. He is a truthful, moment-to-moment actor with a well of intelligence and feeling. He does not lie on stage, he doesn’t perform himself —he lives in response to the other person on stage. I first knew Michael as a nondisabled actor, and it just felt pretty natural to continue to see all of the same capabilities in the actor in the wheelchair.”
Thornton also instructs his agents to reject offers to try out for what he calls “What Happened to Timmy?” roles. “If the reason the disabled character is in a play is because the play is about how they became disabled or how difficult it is or whatever, I’d have to say no. I think what helps further us along in the long run is to have the disabled actor play the next door neighbor or the cheating husband or the lawyer with a disability that’s never mentioned. It forces the audience to get over the initial anxiety. It’s a fear of death thing or whatever it is, and there’s that second need to diagnose or figure out what happened. And when it’s never given a context, I think a beautiful thing happens where the anxiety reaches a level where they just simply accept it.” That’s why he sees playing Fife as a “huge, huge, huge coup.”
Lavey very much agrees that it’s important to cast disabled actors in nondisabled roles. “It’s one of the great strengths of theater — lives other than our own are made visible, sympathetic, complex — human. We see past the surface of someone into the shared experience of our humanness. The character that Michael played in Middletown isn’t a hero or a saint — he’s just a guy, just another everyday miracle.”
In a Good Place
Thornton has no friends who use wheelchairs. He acknowledges he knows very little about disability art, culture or politics. He never remotely considered people with disabilities to be part of a civil rights movement until he became disabled. “I was never taught that in high school or college.” But recently his curiosity about these things has been growing, and he says he would love to find a great role to play in a great story about living with a disability. “How wonderful would it be to have a play about the bullshit that a disability forces one to go through?”
Such plays exist, and maybe as Thornton embraces the disability community more, he’ll find a great story he can bring to life. But in mainstream culture, he says, disabled characters are usually “joke delivery systems. ‘Stand up, the president’s here. Oh wait a minute.’ Laugh track.” Accepting a part like this may pay well, Thornton says, “But I think it really hurts that kid sitting at home who wants to ask out the hot cheerleader.”
Right now, Thornton says he’s in a great and exciting place in his professional and personal life, and the perspective he’s gained from his disability experience has a lot to do with it. “I’m more me now than I ever was. Before I was running away from me. I was kind of a nerd and hopeless romantic and bookworm at heart who behaved like a frat boy.”
Even though he hopes the future will hold more stage, screen and television roles than he can handle, he says he always intends to be involved with the Gift. And no matter how much the Gift grows, he says the Gift will always have a presence in Jefferson Park, where he still lives in a condo with Lindsey, his wife of six months. Jeff Park is a “small town in Chicago,” Thornton says, where the storefronts are more likely to be hardware stores and grills. It’s “culturally rich but artistically poor,” he says. The point of starting the Gift was to give kids growing up in the same neighborhood where he did and who have the same attraction to literature, theater and performance that he did a place to go and grow in their backyard.
“I’m excited about life and the future,” Thornton says. “Life may be more physically difficult, certainly, but emotionally and spiritually it feels so much easier.”