Michael Patrick Thornton wasn’t about to let a little thing like quadriplegia get in the way of his art. He’d just make the actors come to the hospital.
“I don’t know what the fuck I was thinking,” Thornton recalls.
“I couldn’t even talk loud enough for you to hear me two feet away, and I held auditions on the 17th floor of the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago.”
That was five years ago, not long after the 29-year-old actor and director fell victim to a mystery illness that left him paralyzed from the neck down. “No one knows what happened. The blanket term is a spinal stroke,” he says. “On St. Patrick’s Day of 2003, I was eating a taco at my friend’s house when I had a terrible pain in my neck…. When I woke up, I was on life support.”
But shortly after, though still an inpatient and confined to “basically a hospital bed [and] a tricked-out wheelchair,” the artistic director of the Gift Theatre was seeing actors for his next directing project. “Actors [were] coming into this nightmarish place, just the worst injuries and maladies you could imagine, with their head shots,” he says.
Luckily for Thornton, he recently had joined Actors’ Equity, the national actors’ union, for a gig at Skokie’s Northlight Theatre; Equity’s health plan paid his medical bills, which totaled “at the very least $500,000, at the most over a million,” he says. He notes that while paying Equity wages and benefits, as the Gift now does, costs the theater $20,000 a year—quite a sum for a 40-seat storefront that refuses to charge more than $25 a ticket—he’s understandably grateful to be a member. “As an actor, wherever [Equity] needs me to show up, do a fuckin’ speech, wear the T-shirt, I’m there.”
Thornton continued directing throughout his long rehab, but his goal was to get back on stage, which would take another three years. “I just didn’t want my first [role] back to be a dude in a wheelchair,” he says. “I wanted to walk, so I said that’s how I would do it.” He finally found the right piece in The Good Thief, Conor McPherson’s Dublin-thug monologue; in the 2006 Gift production he remained seated throughout the show, but only after walking with a cane into the scene.
Thief was “just one of those instances of perfect project meets the actor at the perfect time,” Thornton says. “And now those seem to be the only projects I’m interested in. I’m interested in doing plays [in which] I can really say something to the audience, I can really fucking share something with them.”
Thornton continues to find ways to share, such as playing the lead role in The Elephant Man in Steppenwolf’s Theatre for Young Audiences production, with only his wheelchair suggesting “deformity.” “As an artist, I’m grateful for what happened,” he says. “In a way, it is a gift—no pun intended.”
Next gig You can currently see him playing the title role in The Last Days of Judas Iscariot at the Gift, through May 4.