Three years ago Michael Patrick Thornton marched in the Saint Patrick's Day parade, downed a couple Guinnesses at the Irish American Heritage Center, and picked up a snack at Taco Bell to take to a friend's house. "And then, bang!" he says. "Five minutes into a taco, it felt like an entire football team was standing on my neck in high heels." When aspirin didn't relieve the pain, friends took him to the emergency room at Resurrection Hospital. "I walked in and told them what was going on. I think they thought I was on drugs and just having a panic attack. I was sitting on a table, waiting to be examined. I remember the pain increasing and I said 'I can't breathe,' and that's all I remember. When I woke up I was on life support and they were doing a spinal tap."
The doctors' best guess was Thornton had suffered a stroke. Almost totally paralyzed, he was transferred to the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, where he initially made good progress. But a few weeks later, as friends walked him down the hall in a wheelchair, he had "the exact same terrifying feeling again." As his friends watched, he suffered a second, more devastating attack—pouring sweat, turning white, breathing as if "through a coffee stirrer." When it had passed he couldn't move, and the left side of his body was locked like a fist. "That one really wrecked me," he says. "It took so freaking long to wake anything up. I remember lying in bed, staring at my finger for six or seven hours until it finally moved. That's pretty much how I woke things up: staring, trying to remember the sensation of what it felt like to move it." Three months later he was released into the care of his parents, in a wheelchair. A year of rehab would follow, but the doctors told him he'd never walk again. He was 24 years old and vowed he'd prove them wrong. That's the part, he says, that "sounds like a terribly nauseating Hallmark story."
The tall, blue-eyed son, and grandson, of cops from Jefferson Park, Thornton says his life had been wonderful before that day in March. Blessed with looks and talent, he'd gotten into Park District theater as a teenager and was later awarded a theater scholarship to the University of Iowa. He studied there for two years before returning to Chicago in 1999 to see if he could make his way as an actor. His first job had him wearing a tutu at Bailiwick, but he soon got a part in Noble Fool's Flanagan's Wake, was accepted to the training program at Steppenwolf, and was cast in A Skull in Connemara at Northlight, where he earned his Actors' Equity card. (That wound up being enormously important: Equity's insurance eventually covered more than $1 million in medical bills for him.) In 2001 Thornton and another former Iowa student, William Nedved (currently the publicist at Steppenwolf), founded the Gift Theatre Company, with an ensemble that included another Iowa classmate, Mary Fons, and new friends from the Steppenwolf program. Their idea was to bring theater to a Chicago neighborhood that didn't have any, but over the next three years they did eight shows in established venues like the Chopin and Victory Gardens.
Even with the paralysis, Thornton never really stopped working. Three months after the second stroke he was directing Language of Angels, holding auditions at RIC while still an inpatient. "It was ridiculous," he says. "People two feet away from me couldn't hear me. I couldn't write. But it was a fantastic production." The next spring, in the midst of another show he was directing, he and Nedved had some wine and decided they'd strayed from their original mission. "We were lucky to make money on every show we did, pretty much consistently got great reviews, but it just didn't feel like what we wanted to do with the company."
Early last year Gift Theatre signed a five-year lease for a former shoe store in Jefferson Park—on a block once patrolled by Thornton's grandfather—and spent six months renovating. They inaugurated the 33-seat black box last fall with a production of The Glass Menagerie directed by Sheldon Patinkin, who's been a mentor since the company was founded. (That show will be reprised this summer at the city's Theater on the Lake.) Though Thornton says they've been running the business end of the company more or less "by the seat of our pants," their decisions look sound. The Gift's 2006 budget is $50,000, the ceiling on expenses for each production is $3,500, and the company has developed partnerships with neighborhood businesses. Since rental venues were costing up to $1,500 a week, the $14,000 annual tab for the new digs should be, at worst, a wash.
Last week Thornton showed off the place with the help of a walker, moving one deliberate step at a time from the compact lobby to the long rectangle of a performance space. The company's named for Polish director Jerzy Grotowski's concept that the actor makes a gift of himself to the audience, and Thornton, who directed Hurlyburly in the new space last winter, says acting is what he really wants to do. Next week, for the first time since the strokes, he'll be onstage, performing Conor McPherson's monologue The Good Thief, in which a former Dublin thug talks about a day gone horribly wrong. "There's a lot of parallels between this play and what happened to me," Thornton says. "In a lot of ways it's an exorcism. This guy's a work in progress and so am I."
Thornton says the worst part of what happened to him is the "psychological havoc" that persists when there's no clear diagnosis. "You just feel like you're living with a gun to the back of your head. Last night I went to see a band I love and I spent half the time terrified. You don't trust yourself in a social situation. You don't trust your body to not betray you again. Any feeling of weirdness, any slight pain, is a herald of incoming doom." But he says he doesn't regret what happened in part because the company is doing things it never would have done, such as developing a piece for the pediatric floor at RIC, where Thornton was assigned when there was no more room on the spinal-cord injury floor. "I lost of a lot of friends who walked away," he says. "I lost a consistent career as an actor. I almost died twice, had that experience and whatever spirituality comes with that—a grab-bag version of spirituality at this point. And these wonderful children pretty much saved my life through their optimism. They made it near impossible to be despondent there, because nothing fazed them. I feel very lucky to be able to act now, to have this theater, that people are coming to live theater in Jefferson Park. And I feel very lucky to be alive."
The Good Thief
WHEN: Previews Thu 5/18-Sat 5/20, 8 PM; opens Thu 5/25. Through 7/1: Thu-Fri 8 PM, Sat 3 and 8 PM
WHERE: Gift Theatre, 4802 N. Milwaukee
INFO: 773-283-7071, thegifttheatre.org
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/A. Jackson.