Photo by Julieta Cervantes

On March 9th, The Glass Menagerie will open at the Belasco Theater in New York City, thereby adding a new act to the city’s theater history — Madison Ferris, an actor with muscular dystrophy, will become the first wheelchair user to perform a major role in a Broadway production.

Ferris will be playing the part of Laura Wingfield, a young woman who is subjected to her mother meddling in her romantic life, in this latest revival of Tennessee Williams’ 1944 family drama. Starring alongside Ferris will be multiple Oscar and Emmy winner Sally Field as Amanda Wingfield, actor-director Joe Mantello as Tom Wingfield, and Finn Whitrock as the Gentleman Caller.

Ferris studied theater at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pennsylvania, acting in a number of plays, performing with an all-woman sketch comedy group, and dancing with a campus improve company. After graduation she moved to New York City to pursue a career on the stage. Ferris previously joined two dance performances by the French choreographer Jérôme Bel before being cast by director Sam Gold in The Glass Menagerie. Both Bel and Gold are known as experimentalists in the worlds of dance and theater.

Perhaps it’s not surprising that the biggest breaks in Madison Ferris’ young career have come by those who expand the accepted norms of the performing arts. On Broadway, as in film and television, there are typically few characters with disabilities, and nondisabled actors often play those few roles that are available.

Tennessee Williams wrote Laura as having a slight limp, “a barely suggested disability” that contributes to a “fragile” temperament. By casting an actor who uses a wheelchair, Gold upends the way Laura is traditionally played onstage, making the disability more visible, while giving Laura a power and playfulness that has been absent in previous productions. In an interview with the New York Times he said:

“She doesn’t have to act like she’s vulnerable, because the vulnerability is in the prop – there’s a wheelchair that gets to do that vulnerability for her. … She gets to have agency, and she gets to be the kind of woman I’d rather see onstage.”