My daughter and I saw a play last week at Portland Center Stage called “Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberly.” It’s a delightfully written riff on Jane Austen’s work about the Bennet girls. Fanfic, if you will. The famed Mr. Darcy makes an appearance. This play and this performance are fantastic; gorgeously staged, acted with verve and elan and delight by every single cast member. I cannot recommend this performance enough, and everyone in Portland needs to see it.
Despite having an actual degree in English, I have never read any Jane Austen. Yes, yes, terrible. But I took my daughter Sophia to this play because of its star, whose work I have seen multiple times on Portland stages, whose work I admire among my favorite Portland theatre talents. Lauren Modica has that rare ability to seize attention and weave it, like a spell, through her magnificent voice and intonation and gestures and facial expressions. She is riveting onstage.
My daughter, as you know, has a physical disability. She also has a power and magnetism that reaches beyond the shock Typical People have when they see such a tiny person in a wheelchair talking like a Rhoades scholar. She is funny and whip-smart, and takes absolutely no bullshit from any quarter.
Sophia and Modica are coupled in my brain because of their respective strength. Because Modica also has Dwarfism, I recognize that she and my daughter may have had similar experiences. Being in public with my daughter, I’ve seen how she interacts with a world designed for tall, ambulatory people, and I’ve seen how the world reacts to her. Those reactions are not always positive, to put it mildly. The responses often highlight the most ignorant, the most immature, the most narrow-minded of our culture, who for some reason also have no self-regulation in public. Raising my daughter in this culture has made me fiercely protective of her humanity, and has put me on the lookout for other people who understand the vastly different experience of being physically different.
I took Sophia to “Ms. Bennet” so she could witness the power of Lauren Modica, and witness that power in the body of someone who encounters the world like Sophia does. I don’t take Sophia to shows very often, but I took her to this one with the specific purpose of experiencing representation in the venerable person of Modica.
Going with that specific intention, then, it is impossible to separate the experience of being disabled in a Typical People space from the experience of witnessing representation onstage. I hesitated to write about it because I didn’t want our experience at the theatre to taint the public perception of the show. But when Modica herself, through her engaging and witty and brilliant Instagram posts, suggested that some members of the public have expressed negative responses to her being on stage, I realized that holding my thoughts back was not necessary.
“…People have feelings about different bodies playing certain roles! People have lots of things to say to the person IN that body, ranging from the breathtakingly kind, to touchingly honest, to passive-aggressive and shitty and rude and dismissive. And you, and your body, take it in, let it go, leave the party early, get out of that lobby, excuse yourself.” @LaurenModica
And so it has always been with Sophia, even on the evening of opening night, when we saw “Ms. Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley.” Despite our best intentions and planning ahead, disability affects every trip we take out of the house, even when we go see a show starring a person in a different body. I don’t know why I thought, even subconsciously, that it would be any different.
First, when I made arrangements to see the show, I had requested accessible seats, and informed the person making our reservations that I would be bringing a person in a wheelchair. At the ticket counter, I said that we would need assistance getting to our seats. Having been several times to this theatre, I knew we’d need a chaperone through the hallway leading to our seats. However, the ticket person said “The usher can help you!” Oh, ok. Maybe the process changed.
To the usher, I said “I was told you could help us to our seats.” I didn’t explain more than that, as I was standing next to a woman in a wheelchair.
The usher gestured inside the auditorium door, and said “They can help you inside.”
Again, I was surprised, but maybe there were changes I didn’t know about.
To the usher INSIDE, I said “We will need help to our seats.”
The Inside Usher gestured to the accessible spots near the top of the stairs and said “Well, you can sit here!”
“Aren’t these reserved seats?”
“Well, yes. Let me see your tickets.”
I showed them to her. “We’re in the front row.”
“Oh,” she said, looking puzzled. “Well, how do you feel about taking the stairs?”
Again, I’m standing RIGHT NEXT TO my companion in a wheelchair.
I cleared my throat, took a breath to quell the rising fury. “You want us to go down those stairs in a wheelchair?”
“Well, let me call someone.” And she proceeded to help other patrons find their seats while we stood to one side at the top of the stairs which would, very clearly, not get us to our seats safely.
I waited a moment. It was nearly curtain time. Inside Usher didn’t make any moves that looked like finding someone to help us. I waited a bit more.
I walked out into the lobby, found the very professional and composed House Manager, whom I recognized from my years of seeing shows at this theatre, and asked for his assistance getting to our seats. He *immediately* guided us to the secret, locked-door hallway that provided the only access to our seats. He did so without batting an eyelash. I did wonder why the ushers, who were surely volunteers, had not been advised on this process.
Once my daughter was situated in a theatre seat, and her wheelchair rolled into the hallway for the duration, we settled in for the absolute delight that unfolded before us. The moment Modica started speaking, and immediately after the opening monologue, Sophia could not contain her excitement. She whispered to me “You didn’t tell me she would be playing ME onstage!” She giggled and chortled and guffawed throughout the rest of the show, with delight and understanding and a freedom she doesn’t often express publicly.
I was not prepared for the resemblance of Ms. Bennet to my daughter — not physically, but intellectually. Ms. Mary Bennet, a character described as the “difficult” sister, as “bookish and overlooked,” takes on new dimensions when played by an actor with visible physical differences.
Modica played a character written for typical actors, a role not adjusted for her stature or physical dimensions. The character is just an intelligent, strong, uncompromising woman who is tired of being overlooked. Usually, she’s played by a woman in glasses, clearly signifying the reason she is overlooked (eyeroll). Modica’s stage dominion gave her new dimension, gravitas and significance.
Dialogue about her being relegated to a supporting role in her sisters’ dramas felt suddenly weightier, and her sisters’ admonishments about Mary’s lack of romantic appeal because of “who she is” had deep impact for me. It was impossible for me to separate the words of the play from the physical representation of someone so like my daughter.
I’ll admit here that Sophia and I smuggled a container of special eggnog into the show for us to share. We did sip at this drink throughout, full of both our exuberance and Christmas spirit, and for one beautiful moment of artistry and theatre magic, a feeling of being completely included. The show was an unmitigated delight for both of us, and we reveled in it like kittens in snow.
At the end of the show, we addressed the process of extracting ourselves from our seats. Ever a complex equation, this night’s process reversal required waiting until most of our row was evacuated, going to the usher near the door where my daughter’s chair was stored, asking him to retrieve the chair (to which he replied “What chair?” Dude, you were standing RIGHT HERE when they put it away!), and bringing the chair back to my daughter so she could transfer back to her sole method of ambulation.
Then it all fell apart.
When people waiting on the stairs headed out of the theatre saw me walking back across the aisle in the front, they decided it looked faster to exit that way! But they didn’t notice (because no one ever does) the wheelchair in the way. When they got to the spot where the wheelchair was sitting perpendicular to the stage–because that’s how my daughter executes her transfers, straight-on to the chair — they decided to climb OVER the chair.
I mean, they did it “politely”, saying “I’m just going to squeeze past here.”
And this, folks, is when Mama Lion showed up.
“No,” I said, “You can’t do that. You’ll hurt the chair.” And they would have: to get past the chair, they would have had to put their full weight on the handlebars and vault themselves between the wheels and the stage. No, ma’am. Not happening.
With my body thus blocking the tiny alley through which they had hoped to exit, a line of impatient but able-bodied theatre fans gathered along the front row. About a dozen people, aligned like lemmings, unaware or uncaring that this was the only course of egress for people in wheelchairs but one of but many for people who could walk.
To be fair, most of them waited patiently. Or I ignored them sufficiently to be unaware myself of their angst. Either way, once my daughter was safely situated, she turned her wheelchair out of the way and waved them through, hopeful that our ultimate exit was imminent.
The line stopped again immediately in front of us, blocking my daughter in place, with a line of others waiting yet again to exit on the only path available to my daughter. In spite of having initially waited until the aisle was clear, we were locked into our spot again, this time by a theatre-goer who just wanted to stop and take a good long look at the stage up close.
And while ambulatory people could squeeze past him, Sophia was stuck, turned away from the ramp, and crammed up against the seats.
I called to the gentleman to please move along, as we were trying to exit.
He replied, “Go ahead!”
I was all out of fucks to give.
“We can’t move. You’re blocking us. She’s in a wheelchair.”
He turned around and looked, then moved off the aisle to allow us to move. As I waited for my daughter to turn her chair, he looked at me and said “Wow. Cranky woman.”
There’s a whole lot wrapped up in those words.
First, audibly and directly criticizing a woman in public, a woman who is a stranger, for having the temerity to make a reasonable request is misogyny, plain and simple.
As my husband said when I told him the story, that man would *never* have said something like that to him. Because the man at the theatre was inconvenienced by a woman, he felt entitled to mock her.
Second, he clearly felt entitled to take up that space, irrespective of everyone around him. He wasn’t just delaying our departure, he was delaying everyone else who was waiting in line behind him. But he targeted me.
And third, he was so willfully ignorant and lacking in basic empathy that he couldn’t see how he had trapped an actual person in a wheelchair, and prevented her from moving.
He was not worth a response, but I gave him one anyway, because, as I said, zero fucks were left.
I said “If you had to deal with this as often as we have, you’d be cranky too.”
I mean, it’s true, and it’s direct, but I wish I could have just said “Oh, fuck off, you ignorant jackass.” But because I maintain a polite demeanor in public at all times (fear and shame are good for SOMETHING), I have yet to let loose the way I know in my heart I really can. Even when I last played softball, the worst thing I said to an umpire who made a call for the other team was, at the top of my lungs, “I DO NOT AGREE WITH THAT DECISION.” I just can’t seem to spit it out.
That moment felt like a defeat. The whole night had been all about the idea of being a person with a disability in public, about just being a person like all other people. But that wasn’t possible, because, as Modica pointed out, people are sometimes passive-aggressive and shitty and rude and dismissive. When all was said and done, my daughter and I could not escape the inevitable shittiness of being disabled in public.
I used to end my theatre reviews with a wrap-up sentence, like “Go see Waiting for Godot at PCS for a rollicking good time.” I’ll add a qualifier to this one. “If you’re in Portland, and you want to see a great actor, go see ‘Ms. Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley’. And if you have a physical disability, keep your expectations realistic, don’t block the aisle for Typicals, and try to avoid eye contact with the jackass from row 37.”