Sherry Jo Ward on stage performing Stiff. Photo courtesy of Audrey Gibbs (C’22).
By Claire Smith
The three tools of an actor are body, mind, and voice. “Well, I’m down one, and the other two aren’t doing so well, either,” said Sherry Jo Ward, the writer and actress of the one-woman show Stiff, which held two performances in the Tennessee Williams Center, last Wednesday and Thursday, January 22 and 23. Ward has stiff person syndrome, a rare progressive syndrome that affects the nervous system and leads to extreme muscle stiffness. When first diagnosed, she was told she had ‘stiff man syndrome’; “Look what feminism has done for us!” she remarked.
Ward performs her show from a wheelchair and has an assistant on stage for emergencies or for helping her remember lines. The play alternates between monologues on death and the fear of her husband seeing her as a burden, to discussing the relative hotness of her female physical therapist and gynecologist, to talking about the changes in daily life that happen when you slowly turn from being able-bodied— and in her case, very fit— to dependent on the support of others. Part stand-up comedy, part play, part powerpoint presentation, Stiff moves between different ways of expressing complicated emotions with ease.
Stiff makes something scary and foreign like a progressive illness seem personal and tangible; it is rich with colorful anecdotes and humor and pain, both physical and emotional. When a pain flare-up makes Ward interrupt a fun little harmonica number she dedicated to Ellen Degeneres, and she calls out to her assistant for help, the audience doesn’t just feel pity that she is disabled, they feel her pain. They see her talk through her pain, readjust, take a sip of tea, hit her (medicinal) vape pen, and move on. The audience gets uncomfortable, concerned, and disturbed as she does, then settles back down as Ward leans back and launches confidently into another speech.
When you hear about a one-woman show of a wheelchair-bound woman with a degenerative illness, your first guess isn’t that it would necessarily be funny. What was refreshing was that the play was neither sappy and motivational— I feel great and you can too, because you could have it so much worse— or completely depressing. It was human, which means it could move easily between sadness and anger and joy and sarcasm and complicated feelings about your mother-in-law. It relished in dark humor; as Ward cried out in pain, it was hard not to cringe when you heard her safeword “sugartits” muttered out through heavy breaths.
Humor helps dull the pain of the hardest parts of the play, but Ward finds moments to speak with clarity and sincerity that cuts through and leaves the audience hanging on for her next word. She talked about the little things that she wishes she could do one more time: walk on the beach barefoot, walk around a flea market and touch every little thing, flush a public bathroom toilet with her foot. She talked about how she wants her husband to still desire her. She wants people to touch her and enjoy being around her, and she wants to not fear a future where she becomes more in pain and more dependent on others.
She readjusts in her chair, takes a hit off her vape, and moves her powerpoint to another slide. And you move along with her, to whatever story she has next.
As a professional actress who worked for years in theatre before the onset of her illness, Ward is an excellent performer who works the play to her needs— a wheelchair and low mobility, a mind that can wander and forget lines, a body that aches— by highlighting them rather than apologizing for them. In fact, as she revealed during the Q&A after the show, the moment where her pain flares up and she calls out “Sugartits!” to her assistant is scripted. It interrupts the show unapologetically, forcefully. Ward’s body and pain are central to her story, and she foregrounds that for the play, to great success.