They’re Not Dwelling on Disabilities

June 27, 2024

Madison Ferris and Danny J. Gomez

Editor’s note: In a recent edition of Weekend Arts, The New York Times highlighted the off-Broadway production of Laura Winter’s romantic comedy, “All of Me,” and addressed common misconceptions about casting actors with disabilities. Starring Madison Ferris and Danny J. Gomez, both actors suggest that Hollywood writers shouldn’t “tie themselves in knots” over disability.

A bizarre thing happens when the actors Madison Ferris and Danny J. Gomez are out and about in public together, using mobility aids to get around: she a scooter, he a wheelchair. Inevitably, she said, strangers approach, presuming that the two are somehow in distress.

“People will be like, ‘Are you OK? What’s going on?’” Ferris said the other afternoon at the Pershing Square Signature Center in Manhattan, where they are starring in the New Group’s Off Broadway production of Laura Winters’s romantic comedy, “All of Me.”

And if several wheelchair users should roll down the street together, Gomez said, “then it’s like the circus is in town.” Such as the night a few friends of his from the Los Angeles dance team the Rollettes came to the play, and he and Ferris left with them afterward.

“Everywhere we went,” he said, “just stares, left and right.”

To Gomez, who was paralyzed from the waist down in a mountain-biking accident in 2016, that kind of othering underscores the need for theater, television and film to depict more disabled people, and do it more matter-of-factly.

“Then it wouldn’t be so weird in real life,” he added. “It would just be people going about their day. Like, I don’t stare at you when you’re with your group of friends.”

Not that “All of Me” is intended as pedagogical, but he does think it could help.

The play opens with a meet-cute between Lucy, played by Ferris, and Alfonso, played by Gomez, outside a hospital. Unlike the actors who portray them, the characters rely on electronic text-to-speech devices to talk: the sardonic Lucy because her muscles have recently made it difficult for her to enunciate, the amused Alfonso because his vocal cords were damaged when he was a baby. Lucy’s joking immediately gives the audience permission to laugh.

The show’s comedy is, to a great degree, physical. There is nuance in Lucy’s and Alfonso’s faces and posture, and the positions of her scooter and his wheelchair. Reviewing “All of Me” for The New York Times, Naveen Kumar credited “much of its heartfelt appeal to its two leads,” praising Ferris’s deftness of expression and Gomez’s charm.

“All of Me,” which runs through June 16, came into Ferris’s life in 2017, when she was playing Laura in Sam Gold’s Broadway revival of “The Glass Menagerie.” That show’s assistant director, Ashley Brooke Monroe, who is the director of “All of Me,” suggested her to Winters.

For Ferris, that spring was a disillusioning time. Gold’s production, which starred Sally Field as Amanda and Joe Mantello as Tom, was not well received, and closed early.

“I had envisioned the world being a lot more progressive,” Ferris said. “And then when I did ‘The Glass Menagerie,’ I realized how much it wasn’t. So much of the feedback that I, not received personally, but was written about me, was entirely about the way I moved and my physicality. And it wasn’t about the fact that I had poured my heart and soul into this character.”

In the years since, New York stages have seen an uptick in high-profile performances by disabled actors, like Ali Stroker, who won a Tony Award in 2019 as Ado Annie in Daniel Fish’s “Oklahoma!”; Katy Sullivan and Gregg Mozgala in the Broadway production of “Cost of Living” in 2022; Michael Patrick Thornton, who played Dr. Rank in Jamie Lloyd’s “A Doll’s House” last spring; Ryan J. Haddad, a 2024 Obie Award winner for his “Dark Disabled Stories”; and Jenna Bainbridge, an accessibility consultant on “All of Me,” currently on Broadway in “Suffs.”

“Slowly,” Ferris said, “the tide is turning.”

It might turn faster if not for what Monroe suggested is a misperception by producers that plays involving actors with disabilities are “incredibly expensive” or logistically complex to stage.

“I know for a fact it is not as hard as people think it is,” she said.

Still, she noted, it goes more smoothly at a contemporary facility like the Signature Center, designed with artist and audience accessibility in mind.

“All of Me” made its premiere in 2022 at Barrington Stage Company, in Western Massachusetts. Gomez had joined the project in 2019, two years after Ferris.

During the show’s incubation, the cultural debate about who has the right to depict which kinds of characters has only intensified. Winters, whose initial inspiration for writing about disability in “All of Me” was the memory of watching her grandmother lose her mobility, is nondisabled.

As far as Ferris is concerned, that does not mean that Winters is out of bounds to have imagined the lives of Lucy and Alfonso.

“If anyone said that to Laura, I would probably beat them up,” Ferris mused, darkly. “I would probably, like, hit them with my scooter.”

For one thing, she said, Winters has listened to her and Gomez, rewriting the script to more closely match the actors’ experiences. For another, Winters and Monroe, who is also nondisabled, have enlisted experts as consultants, and hired disabled people behind the scenes.

Winters acknowledged sometimes having felt nervous about writing disabled characters. But she has rooted them in family relationships — most significantly, Lucy’s fraught dynamic with her mother, played by Kyra Sedgwick.

“I do know how to write families,” Winters said, “and I do know how to write sisters, and I do know how to write lovers, and I do know how to write people on a date. And all these other things that people with disabilities are also doing with their lives.”

Both Ferris and Gomez are hungry to play characters who are simply in the world, whether written as disabled or not.

Ferris has a whole list of dream roles, starting with Jean in Sarah Ruhl’s comedy “Dead Man’s Cell Phone,” the role Mary-Louise Parker performed Off Broadway in 2008. Also Catherine Sloper in the stage version of “The Heiress”; Natasha in “Three Sisters”; Stella in “A Streetcar Named Desire”; Gwendolen in “The Importance of Being Earnest”; and Lady Macbeth — “obviously,” she said.

But mostly, Ferris — who dismissed many depictions of disability as “a buzz kill” — would like to keep doing comedies, onstage and onscreen.

And Gomez, principally a screen actor, would like to work consistently. So it would help if writers stopped tying themselves in knots over disability.

“The number one thing I hear from writers in L.A.,” he said, “is like, ‘Well, how do I explain why you’re in a wheelchair?’ I’m like, ‘No one cares.’”

“If you don’t mention it,” he added, “or just write, ‘The man works at a coffee shop, serves a coffee,’ that’s it. Then you can move on with your story.”

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