Stephen Madigan is used to overcoming challenges. When an auto accident early in life left him unable to walk, he didn’t allow a wheelchair to hinder his mobility any more than it had to. He went to medical school and became a radiologist.
In the back of his mind, he toyed with the idea of acting but assumed that would be impossible. “I’m in a wheelchair,” he told friends. “I’m not an actor.”
But after he read media reports in 2012 that suggested King Richard III lived with scoliosis and was deformed, he began rethinking his assumptions. “Oh, wait a minute,” he said to himself. “That’s interesting. I became more and more fascinated.”
He studied the text of Shakespeare’s “The Life and Death of Richard III,” memorized the soliloquies and began searching for a director who might help him realize his dream of performing the role on stage.
That dream comes true this week. Madigan plays the title role in “Richard III” in the Studio Theater at Portland Stage Company. Sally Wood, a veteran actor and director from Portland, will direct a cast that includes many familiar names in the Portland theater scene: Robbie Harrison, Lisa Muller-Jones, Carmen-Maria Mandley, J.J. Peeler, Molly Bryant Roberts, Mark Rubin, Max Waszak and Corey Gagne.
Wood was the eighth director Madigan approached. All the others turned him down, and for good reason. “Richard III” is one the biggest roles in theater, and it’s one usually reserved for experienced actors seeking a challenge. Madigan was perceived as presumptuous and perhaps even arrogant for thinking he could pull it off.
The play includes some of Shakespeare’s most-recognized writing, including the passage, “Now is the winter of our discontent, made glorious summer by this sun of York; and all the clouds that lour’d upon our house, in the deep bosom of the ocean buried.”
Wood saw in Madigan something the others didn’t: drive and commitment.
“There is something in that role that speaks to him, and that changes the game altogether. He is passionate about this, and he is serious about this. This is not folly,” she said. “I’ve done plays with crappy actors before, and it went OK. I’m interested in getting the best Richard out of Stephen as we can.”
That is not to say that Madigan is a bad actor, she added. He’s never done it, so there is no way to know how it will go. But rehearsals have been encouraging.
“He’s doing great, and he is adamant about being challenged. He said to me, ‘Don’t go lightly on me.’ ”
When the cast first assembled, another actor complimented Madigan for being “off-book” so soon, meaning he had memorized his lines. Madigan laughed. “I’ve been working on it for two years,” he said.
The play will run about 90 minutes, without an intermission. Madigan will perform in his chair, including the fight scenes.
He’s paying all the actors and all costs associated with the play, including renting the theater and marketing the show.
Madigan works at Down East Community Hospital in Machias. He has an apartment in Machias and commutes to and from his home in Falmouth on weekends. Those weekday nights in Machias gave him plenty of time to prepare for the play, he said, noting that he worked with an acting coach to help him. The coach gave him good advice, he said: “You have to trust the director completely, or it’s not going to work.”
Wood was happy to hear that. She’s acted in “Richard III” at the Theater at Monmouth and knows the play well. Success on stage is built on trust – trust in other actors and trust in the director, she said.
In addition to Madigan’s preparation and his desire, Wood was enticed to tackle this show because of what Madigan might bring to the role. In light of the discovering of Richard’s scoliosis, the idea of portraying him in a wheelchair is intriguing and offers many artistic possibilities, she said.
Madigan appears ready for the challenge and has asked his collaborators to treat him as they would any other actor, wheelchair or not.
“I don’t think of myself as disabled. I just don’t,” he said. “I never have.”
WHERE: Portland Stage Company Studio Theater, 25A Forest Ave., Portland
WHEN: 7 p.m. Thursday and Friday, 2 and 7 p.m. Saturday
HOW MUCH: Pay-as-you-can, all seats
RESERVATIONS & INFO: 207-847-8020; richardthethirdmaine.com