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Stiff
Written and Performed by Sherry Jo Ward
Directed by Marianne Galloway
Inevitable Theatre Company and The Risk Theater Initiative Project
March 23, 2018

Sherry Jo Ward
Photo: Inevitable Theatre Company

Stiff, like its subject matter, is something of an enigma. A one-woman show featuring Texas-based performer Sherry Jo Ward, the show has been a hit at various festivals and venues in that state, and Inevitable Theatre Company has now brought Ward, her show, and her director, Marianne Galloway, to St. Louis to present this unique production about one woman’s struggle with a rare health condition. It’s a production that has turned out to be extremely compelling.

It almost seems inaccurate to call this a play. It is a play, but it’s more than that. It’s an autobiographical one-person show, but I’ve seen those before, as well. With Stiff,¬†things are a little more immersive than I’ve seen. First of all, there’s Ward herself, who is sitting in her comfortable chair as the audience arrives, chatting amiably with various members of the audience. Then there’s the play, and afterwards, Ward is still there, accompanied by Galloway, talking to the audience and, this time, answering questions about the performance we just saw.¬† The play itself is also one of those performances that’s so much taken from life, that in a lot of places it seems more like a conversation than a play, as Ward tells the audience her story and interacts occasionally with the audience and Galloway, who sits in the front row. There’s also a slide show on the big screen behind her, illustrating her story. At times, Ward interacts with the slideshow as well, such as an imagined interview with television journalist Diane Sawyer that’s at times hilarious, at other times poignant.

The subject of the show, co-produced by Paraquad here in St. Louis, is Ward’s experiences with a rare neuromuscular disorder called “Stiff Person Syndrome”, or SPS. I had never heard of this condition before, and according to Ward, there are roughly 300 people in the United States who have it. Through the course of the play, Ward walks the audience through her experience, being diagnosed, dealing with various doctors, and having to adjust to not being able to drive, as well as how her diagnosis affected her acting career and her relationships. It’s a highly personal show, told in conversational style that is often hilariously funny, as well as being gut-wrenchingly dramatic at times, to the point where the line between drama a reality is blurred and the viewer can’t always be sure what’s real and what’s scripted. Ward is a wonder, displaying a remarkable candor, energy, and humor about her condition as well as being at times brutally honest about its effects. This experience is rather like sitting in the living room of an acquaintance while she tells you about her life. It’s that immediate, and authentic. Ward’s talents in acting and writing are on clear display, but so is her almost larger-than-life personality before and after the play itself.

In addition to Ward and Galloway, there’s also support from the excellent technical crew–lighting designer Joseph W. Clapper, stage manager Rhema Easley, and master elictrician/light board operator Paige Spizzo. Inevitable Theatre Company Artistic Director Robert Neblett is also on hand during the intro and talk-back sections, helping to facilitate the discussion between Ward and the audience.

The best word I can think of to describe this production is “unique”. It’s part play, part dialogue, part comedy routine, and more. Ultimately, though, it’s all about Sherry Jo Ward, who gives a performance that’s more than just a performance. It’s an educational production, as well, informing the audience about a condition many theatregoers may not have heard of (I hadn’t). It’s a show that’s difficult to describe, but not the least bit difficult to recommend. See this. You won’t regret it.

Sherry Jo Ward
Photo: Inevitable Theatre Company

Inevitable Theatre Company is presenting the Risk Theater Initiative production of Stiff at the Kranzberg Arts Center until April 1, 2018.

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