Actor rediscovers passion after illness leaves him paralyzed

CHICAGO -- Often what appears to be the worst thing to happen in our lives turns out to be just the motivation we may need to work even harder on our dreams. That's the case with one Chicago actor.

He'd been training for years, well on his way to a promising acting career. Then everything changed. Everything, that is, except his determination to get back on the stage again.

Something special is happening here at Chicago's Lookingglass theatre.

It's a one-man show called 'title and deed,' starring Michael Patrick Thornton. It's about a man trying to find his way in the world.

"'Where do I belong, if anywhere? Who will accept me?' There's a lot of overlap between, I think the disability experience and what this guy is going through," Thornton says.

He sees the connection, because, like the character he plays, Thornton uses a wheelchair. It's the result of a sudden illness back in 2003, which caused him to be rushed to the hospital.

"I was on life support within about 30 minutes, was in a coma for a few days," he says. "They ended up thinking that it was what they call a spinal stroke."

In fact, Thornton had two strokes which left him paralyzed. He credits years of therapy at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago with keeping him going, and he says it was the very, very sick little children also being treated at the RIC who gave him inspiration.

"You'd do therapy and you'd kind of have a pity party and they would say 'Don't be scared. You can do it,'" he says. "Those kids saved my life."

But that near-death experience actually allowed him to reflect on his life and his true passion.

"With the two spinal strokes and losing everything, the ability to move, everything just my eyeballs to talk, in that kind of cellar of your soul, to realize that the one thing that I'm willing to fight for is the ability to get up in front of people and communicate what it feels like to be a human being on this earth," he says.

Although this critically-acclaimed Jefferson Park native admits it wasn't easy getting back on stage.

"My spinal cord would not let my diaphragm know when it was running out of oxygen, so I would just keep talking until I would start passing out," he recalls. "So things woke up slowly in there in time. And, what can I say? It's gift to be here."

If Michael looks familiar, you may remember him from many roles on screen, including television's "Private Practice." He still makes his home here in Jefferson Park where he also leads a theater group called The Gift. Meanwhile his one-man-show at the Lookingglass at Water Tower runs through may third. It's 65 minutes long and is getting great reviews.
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