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Great acting – from a wheelchair

Special to the Daily/PhamalyRegan Linton's portrayal of Aldonza - in and out of a wheelchair - in Phamaly's production of "Man of La Mancha" struck a chord with columnist Sandy Lahmann.

Those of us with disabilities are told over and over again by well-meaning service providers and family members that we must accept our circumstances. That we must stop dreaming. That we aren’t capable of what we dream about so we better just accept reality.

Phamaly, a professional theatre troupe based in Denver and composed entirely of performers with various disabilities, blows that viewpoint right out of the water with their recent production of the musical, Man of la Mancha at the Denver Performing Arts Complex. I had the opportunity to attend a performance near the end of their run.

Despite the fact that I was sitting in my wheelchair in accessible Box 2 of the Space Theatre, I probably started out the same as everyone else in the audience, looking for the disabilities.

The female lead, Regan Linton playing the part of Aldonza, uses a wheelchair due to a spinal cord injury. How would she play Aldonza when all of her lines and songs are delivered from a wheelchair? My practiced eye noticed a slight hesitation from Don Mauck, playing Padre, and suddenly I realized he is blind.

But soon I found myself lost in the story. This is a professional theatre group, and their performance was extraordinary by any standards.

The rich, full voice of the male lead, Leonard Barrett Jr. playing Cervantes and Don Quixote, gave me goose bumps during his vocal performances. I laughed at Sancho’s efforts to manage the exploits of Don Quixote. I felt the anger of Aldonza.

I traveled through the fantasies of Don Quixote and the wheelchairs disappeared. Sure, they were there, but I didn’t see them anymore. They didn’t matter.

Then well into Act II, I suddenly found myself in a brilliantly executed social commentary. The character of Aldonza is raped by the muleteers, a scene presented tactfully and artistically. But when Aldonza is ripped from her wheelchair by her rapists, and later crawls across the stage, no greater commentary can be made regarding the victimization of people with disabilities.

I felt that scene in my gut with a powerful wrenching that left me in tears.

Aldonza’s line regarding herself, “Born on a dung heap to die on a dung heap,” and her struggle with a life of hardship and horror, perhaps mirrors the lives of some people with disabilities who are unable to get beyond the hardship and difficulty.

But when Aldonza, despite her best efforts, begins to believe in the impossible dreams of Don Quixote, and when those dreams finally bring her hope, we, too, begin to believe in impossible dreams. Then we realize that sometimes the key is to ignore reality and reach for the unreachable stars because that is the way out of any dung heap, including disability.

Phamaly itself is the result of an impossible dream. Phamaly was created in 1989 when a group of former students of the Boettcher School in Denver became frustrated with the lack of theatrical opportunities available to performers with disabilities. They started their own theatre company dedicated to bringing the talents of performers with disabilities to the forefront. Who would have thought that performers with disabilities could be so wildly successful?

I do a great disservice telling you about Phamaly after Man of La Mancha closed. After all, don’t most decent journalists tell you about great theatre while you still have time to go see the production?

However, please keep Phamaly on your radar. They will be performing Barefoot in the Park in January 2010, which promises to be another amazing production. Please check out their website at http://www.phamaly.org.

Sandy Lahmann, a previous Frisco resident now temporarily lost on the Front Range, can be e-mailed at sandy@wheelsonthesummit.com.