Whatever you do, don’t think Stiff is about someone who’s awkwardly formal in their dealings with other people.
Even the full title of the regional premiere from Inevitable Theatre Company is Stiff: A Fast-Paced Comedy About Moving Slow doesn’t really do it justice. There are indeed many laughs in the one-woman show which is not so much a play as it is performance art by its creator Sherry Jo Ward. But its story is far more significant than a desire to evoke laughter.
Ward has Stiff Person Syndrome. That’s an actual diagnosis, one that falls into the category of rare diseases. It’s an autoimmune condition, one in which an immune system attacks its host, the person whose body it is. Multiple sclerosis, for instance, is an autoimmune condition.
This is the point where I have to stand up and point out that I am unable to view this totally through a critic’s lens. For those who don’t know, I’m an RN with thirty years’ experience in hospitals. My license is now officially inactive, but one never does really stop being a nurse. I will probably never be able not to think like a nurse.
This is a work about disability. It’s casual – when we walk in, Ward is in a large, soft easy chair with an ottoman, her walker nearby. She’s talking, joking with audience members and with Robert Neblett, the group’s artistic director. Ward was acting long before she was diagnosed and tells the story of how it happened and how she realized she had become part of a minority community.
But there are no violins in this story. It’s tough stuff along with the humor. Mom always said not to stare, right? The public has been trained to look away from the disabled. Here, we’re not only allowed to look and absorb this differentness without anyone giving us the fish eye, we can do so to share, to understand the experience more. She weaves this tale, rather than telling it, back and forth, using, of all things, Power Point to help. She talks about how her condition began, and demonstrates one of her physical therapy exercises in making a point for those who might say she doesn’t look very disabled, for instance And she makes some very cogent points about pain, that unseen factor that becomes a glass wall between the person in pain and the rest of the world.
Ward, if she isn’t a rowdy woman surely plays one onstage very well indeed. This is not a G-rated show, although by theatre standards, it’s fairly mild. What she’s giving us is the chance to share the experience and to begin to become comfortable with disability in others. I have a long-time friend who’s blind. Watching him carefully and with deliberation putting new acquaintances at ease is like watching an artist at work. Ward is doing the same thing on a wider scale. Her storytelling is done with seeming ease despite her physical effort. It’s often a pleasure to watch, and when it isn’t pleasurable, it’s still engrossing.
This is a fascinating and important piece of theatre experience. It’s most important for people who are uncomfortable with the subject matter, but it works on all kinds of levels. And for those who are or were in health care, it’s doubly interesting. You’ll learn something.
No intermission, runs about 65 minutes. Be aware that curtain times for all shows – some of which are signed in ASL, and one of which has an audio description for the visually impaired – are after the curtain rises at the Fox, which means that parking will be tricky. Just plan ahead. But go.
through April 1, 2018
Inevitable Theatre Company
Kranzberg Arts Center
North Grand at Olive