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by Rosemary Frisino Toohey

(Cornered was staged as part of a double-bill along with Get Stuffed by Mark Scharf at The Spotlighters Theater. This page includes only those parts of the review focusing on Cornered.)

Saber Toothed
A wheelchair-bound wife verbally skewers her husband in Rosemary Toohey's tense "Cornered"
John Barry
August 10, 2005
The City Paper
Copyright 2005

Watch out for people in wheelchairs. The documentary Murderball gives the impression that the more limbs you cut off a person the more dangerous they become on the court. “Cornered,” Rosemary Toohey’s new one-act at the Spotlighters, turns a middle-aged woman with multiple sclerosis into a psychological monster, who makes up for loss of motor functions by turning her caregiver husband into her own personal puppet.

The Spotlighters’ small theater-in-the round doesn’t always accommodate its productions perfectly, but “Cornered” is right at home. Susan Porter’s Laura turns her wheelchair into a weapon, rolling around the stage, thrusting and parrying at her husband, Stephen (Mark Squirek), an amiable middle-aged man in the Dick Van Patten mold. He wants nothing better than to help his crippled wife face down her disease. Laura, meanwhile, thinks that if he really wants to be a saint, he’s got to earn it.

At first, life proceeds on target: Shortly after the diagnosis, the couple is immersing itself in self-help therapy, watching My Left Foot, and trying to stave off muscle deterioration with appropriate exercises.

But the uplifting Lance Armstrong phase doesn’t last for long. Toohey reminds us that in the matrimonial power struggle illness is one more weapon, and somewhat awkwardly she pounds the point in with a fencing motif. Husband-wife encounters are punctuated by brief lectures on fencing strategy. If you want to rule the roost from your wheelchair, choose the line of attack carefully. Laura applies the rules of fencing to caregiving—she waits for the vulnerabilities and touches the right buttons. As the illness progresses, the feints become more calculated.

Brief, sharp moments of strategically composed dialogue lift “Cornered” above the usual Baltimore Playwrights Festival fare. Toohey isn’t really interested in creating a connection between Laura and the audience—and that’s just fine. While there are some moments of human candor, she remains an enigma to the end. Why is it that anyone in her position would bite the only person in the world who wants to help her? It’s an eternal question, and Toohey doesn’t answer it. The hint at the end that Laura has put her husband through the 12-year gauntlet just to persuade him to find another woman and begin again rings hollow. She’s a control freak, and it’s clear that if she wasn’t doing this from her wheelchair, she would find another way.

Though these exchanges between her and her husband exude a good deal of power, the play still has its rough edges. The 12-year span doesn’t really work in a 45-minute production. And fencing, while a metaphor for everything in life, isn’t essential to this particular drama. What keeps this motif alive is the present tense: Toohey isn’t relying on offstage characters, previous engagements, or onstage therapy sessions. The husband-wife conflict is right there on the small square stage, stripped to its essentials.

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