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Risk Theatre Initiative – Sherry Jo Ward

Fort Worth Fringe Festival

Written and Performed by Sherry Jo Ward

Directed by Marianne Galloway

Reviewed Performance: 9/8/2018

Reviewed by Stacey Upton, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN

The moment Sherry Jo Ward, winner of Dallas Theatre Critic’s Forum Awards for writing and acting and a Dallas Column award for best actress, as well as a Kathleen Freeman Spirit Award, is wheeled onto the Vault stage by her assistant in her wheelchair, you know you are in for a special evening. Ward is an arresting performer even as she is being settled into the single set piece, a comfortable armchair and footrest at the onset of this autobiographical one-woman show.

“Stiff” begins with wry observations by Ward as to the nature of her rare disease, mentioning that people have a hard time asking her “what her problem is.” This play is a personal, emotional journey. It encompasses a huge swath of emotions and subject matter - shock, courage, hilarious takes on life, medicinal marijuana, sex, doctor visits, Kegels, interviews with Diane Sawyer, and eventually coming to grips with the fact that this once active (riding ten miles a day on her bike, hiking up 4 flights of stairs a day) vibrant actress, teacher, wife and Mom of two boys is now a person who is dependent on others and needs to ride the Short Bus.

“Stiff” is much more than an observation of what it is like to be diagnosed by your third neurologist as having “Stiff Man Syndrome,” later changed to the more socially correct “Stiff Person Syndrome.” It’s an exercise exploring resiliency and resolve. It’s a scream to the universe that Sherry Jo Ward is not yet ready to be put out to pasture yet, thank you. It is a sometimes two-way conversation with the audience, sometimes one-way monologue/reminiscence that allows us to empathize and even pity (she states would like a little pity, actually) her at the same time as we admire Ward’s courage and sheer smarts at using her exemplary acting talents to show us what it is like to be struck down with and live with a “super-rare neuromuscular disease.” “Stiff” is a performance that keeps you on the edge of your seat, as the actress is prone to sudden neural attacks and painful convulsions. She forges through and past these moments and gives you an up-close searing vision of what the term “personal courage” means.

This is not a dirge by any means. Ward makes you laugh often, loud and long. Even with her disease in full activity she has fantastic comedic timing, and knows how to set up, deliver, and release a laugh with a knowing look or an inhale of a medicinal vape pipe. The production uses multi-media slides to great effect. Conversely, Ward also knows how to get to the heart of what it is to be a frail human trapped in a failing body. She mourns the loss of independence, of wearing high heels, of being able to flush the toilet with her foot. She feels that she shouldn’t be part of the community of handicapped people who ride the “Short Bus,” but as her capacity to function decreases and her pain increases, she finds the beauty in her fellow Short Bus riders and realizes not only does she belong with them, she loves them. And they love her. There is profound healing in this moment of the play, and Ward wisely quietly lets it resonate with her audience. She is a masterful actress.

It was apparent seeing earlier photos of this play that Ward’s condition has deteriorated this past year. In earlier performances she was able to walk with a cane and used a walker to enter the stage and perform solo. Now she must use a wheelchair to get around, one she can’t easily maneuver by herself. Ward also now has a fellow actress and helper on stage with her on book to keep her on track, and in case of an emergency, they use Sherry Jo’s safe word “Sugartits” to signal there is trouble, that the performance needs a pause while physical adjustments are made. “Sugartits” was used twice in the 8pm performance Saturday evening at the Fringe Festival. Part of the show, where Ward reveals in clear, unsparing language that she is hopeful that she dies before her husband gets sick of tending to her was performed laying on the floor as she regained her strength to finish the play.

You see a performance like this without being affected and changed. It’s illuminating to see talent used to inform and impact like this. If you’re able to see “Stiff”, do. A moment early in this sixty-minute play has Ward revealing that her older brother committed suicide when he was nineteen. At that time, she thought “my brother’s suicide would be the defining moment in my life.” The one that colors everything else. That turned out to not be true. This play is a real wake-up call to be grateful for what you have, who you have, and the ability to not only flush the toilet with your foot but to hold the one you love, and tell them you love them.

The Texas Nonprofit Theatres is to be commended on the inclusion of this wonderful piece as a headliner for their third Fringe Festival. Fifteen different entities performed over the course of the weekend. The TNT under the able directorship of Dennis Yslas is finding its stride with this wonderful Fringe Festival. They co-produced the Festival with the Fort Worth Community Arts Center and spread the offerings into two theatres – the black box Sanders, and the aptly named basement venue the Vault. The FW Fringe happened this year to coordinate with a wonderful Fort Worth Gallery night that highlighted fantastic art in the galleries surrounding the theatres. This was a wonderful mix, and one hopes this happy partnership continues. The 4th season of the Festival is in the works, and usually occurs on the weekend after Labor Day.