True story of sudden healing spurred the hard questions behind Realwheels Theatre's Act of Faith

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      What happens to the people around a person who has lived with paraplegia for 13 years, and suddenly regains her ability to walk?

      Realwheels Theatre artistic director Rena Cohen had the chance to see it firsthand, when someone involved with her mixed-ability troupe—a performer and choreographer—suddenly experienced a miraculous-seeming healing. Cohen, who has long worked with the disability community to create artistic work, describes it as “shocking”.

      “Over a six- to eight-week period, she went from a person using a wheelchair to someone who was running and jumping and eventually realizing her lifelong dream to volunteer at an orphanage in Uganda,” recalls Cohen over the phone, choosing to keep the woman anonymous. “I became fascinated with how the different worlds this individual was associated with were handling it.”

      That fascination has led, over four years, to Act of Faith, a multidisciplinary new work by Victoria playwright Janet Munsil that explores how friends and people from the disability, medical, and religious communities grapple with evidence of an inexplicable cure. Integrating a cast of mixed abilities, the show is brought to life with wheelchair dancing, choreographed by Carolina Bergonzoni.

      In the real-life case, Cohen witnessed the transformation spark everything from elation to outrage and skepticism. She and Munsil traced those reactions with research and interviews in the early part of the creative process.

      “There was the medical-science community, which felt surprisingly dismissive of the story, sort of ‘Maybe it was misdiagnosed,’ or ‘Maybe she was faking it,’ ” she relates. “Although I will say an emergency physician close to the person said, ‘Well, I see miracles every day in the emergency room.’

      “Then there was the disability community. It had the spectrum of reactions. Some people were happy for her. And some people seemed angry that she had co-opted an identity that wasn’t really hers. That was a minority, but it was certainly felt.”

      The woman herself was a member of a religious community that celebrated the healing as proof of the power of prayer. “But then there were people in the religious community who also have a disability saying, ‘Why didn’t God heal me? Am I not praying enough?’ ” Cohen recalls.

      The director stresses that Act of Faith is no longer specifically about the story that spurred the work. Munsil focuses on two close female friends—Jess (Emily Brook) and Faith (Danielle Klaudt)—roommates who both live with paraplegia until one of them undergoes a sudden transformation. From there, using her signature peppering of humour, Munsil looks at the ripple effects, and the mystery and controversy of faith healing—pushing audiences to pose the rather complex question “If you don’t believe something, does it mean it isn’t true?”

      Not surprisingly, staging the play has led to rich debate, with the cast and crew forced to confront their own preconceptions—a sign of how audiences might engage with Act of Faith too.

      “On our very first table read-through I asked the actors to debate the proposition ‘Does God exist?’ ” Cohen says. “Amid the cast of seven there was a diverse representation on the topic of religion—with a strong atheist, some practising Christians, and I’m Jewish and would probably describe myself as agnostic.

      “But most of our work is the script,” Cohen adds with emphasis. “That’s really our Bible. We look at the script for clues.”

      Realwheels Theatre presents Act of Faith at the Cultch Historic Theatre from Thursday to next Saturday (April 11 to 20).