During intermission at "Seussical," the Lynn Ahrens-Stephen Flaherty musical rendering of Theodor Geisel's rhyme-filled stories, I listened to my fifth-grader and her friend convincingly argue about why Horton, the gentle giant of an elephant, didn't really need the wheelchair he used on stage. "You can tell by the way his feet are held in the chair," my daughter's friend observed.
"I take that as a compliment," says the Horton in question, actor Rob McQuay, who is paralyzed from about the top of his stomach down. That he makes Horton so believable and lovable is a testament to both McQuay's acting skills and the disability-blind eyes of children who, especially when under Seuss's spell, willingly let their imaginations take flight.
"When I cast Rob, I absolutely cast the best person for the role," says Kathryn Chase Bryer, "Seussical's" director and associate director of Imagination Stage, the Bethesda children's theater company. "When I started thinking about Horton I thought to myself, [Rob's] the kind of person I want to play that part. So for me it wasn't about the wheelchair at all."
The accident happened 15 years ago during a carefree summer day at the beach. McQuay, always a bit of a daredevil, was bodysurfing in Ocean City when a wave swelled and pulled him every which way. His neck broken, his wife eight months pregnant with their second child, everything changed.
"At the time I was getting ready to go into rehearsals for 'The Rocky Horror Show' at Woolly Mammoth," he recalls. "That was going to be my big break into the D.C. theater scene, at a very reputable theater company, in a pretty top piece of musical theater." He had stars in his eyes, thoughts of next stops in New York or trying film work, maybe even soaps. "I thought, 'Boy this is something that's going to catapult me.' Then I didn't get to do it. I was lying in a hospital bed."
Today McQuay finds satisfaction and fulfillment in his acting and his advocacy -- he serves on panels for VSA arts of Maryland and the Maryland State Arts Council. Now a father of two teenagers, he admits to still wondering how differently his life might have turned out, "but you really can't base your current and future life on what-ifs."
Bryer sees McQuay's presence in the show as an opportunity. "How do we make this work for us?" she asked at the start of rehearsals, pointing out Imagination Stage's commitment to accessibility and inclusion. "It's not about ignoring [the wheelchair] but about integrating it and using it."
McQuay agrees, explaining that set designer Milagros Ponce de Leon integrated a ramp into her design that enables him access to most of the stage. Choreographer Michael J. Bobbitt also encouraged McQuay to contribute to the artistic process. "I can either 'move my legs' " -- meaning wheels, McQuay explains -- "or move the upper body. I would watch Michael and the cast move and come up with a choice as to whether to move the wheelchair or stay stationary and do the upper body part of it."
"Having Rob in the cast," Bryer says, "extends what we do as an organization. We have a very large education program that has all kinds of opportunities for kids who are deaf and hearing, for actors with disabilities. We don't separate that out and only do it in our education program. That makes us better at what we do. It opens our minds, our horizons, to see the possibilities in everyone."