Lately, Andrew Parks has been looking at the world from a different point of view--a quadriplegic's.
"I notice bathrooms, the width of doors. I notice ramps, when curbs don't have cuts," said the able-bodied actor who plays the wheelchair-bound Larry in Ron Whyte's "Disability: A Comedy" at the Odyssey Theatre.
"The most interesting thing to work on with this part was to just sit and think what it would be like to be in that situation: to be that isolated--physically, mentally and emotionally--from the rest of the world," Parks said of his character, who's been confined to a small apartment and his parents' care for almost all of his 27 years, and who is alternately clever, charming, vicious and desperate for escape.
"Doing that kind of thinking is what I like about being an actor. But the bottom line is that I get to stand up at the end, walk off and go home."
Much of Parks' physical understanding of the role is based on research he did nine years ago (when "Disability" was presented as part of the Taper's new works series at the John Anson Ford Theatre) in a visit to the Long Beach Veterans Administration Hospital.
"What happens with a spinal injury are any number of variations," he said. "There is no disease or situation called quadriplegia. It simply means all four limbs are affected. One of the guys there needed a respirator to breathe for him. One had total sexual sensation. Others had sensations that started to fade out around the chest--patches (of feeling) here and there.
"Also, it would not be impossible to have a body fairly like mine. A lot of the guys have involuntary muscle twitches, which keep quite a bit of muscle tone in the body."
Caring for his character, added the actor (who was a member of the acclaimed Company Theatre and has a 20-year affiliation with Theatre West) was the least difficult part of his work.
"There's a great deal of me in this character," he noted. "I like his thoughts--what he says about Vivaldi's (music): 'Content constantly changing within a fixed form.' I like his ideas, his feelings. I like the way his mind works, the games he plays in his head all day long."
And the games he plays on his parents? Parks, 35, jumps to his character's defense: "Nobody sets out to be a monster. Nobody wants to be a monster. It's the only way he can control his environment."
The control, he admits, is tenuous. "It seems like Larry has a lot of control, because he manipulates his parents, but the bottom line is \o7 he has no control\f7 . If you take his hand off the wheelchair (power switch), he can't move. I mean, I had a very happy family (Mom is actress Betty Garrett, Dad the late actor Larry Parks). But there's a sort of universal thing about how we depend on our family and our family depends on us. This is just a very bizarre, twisted, special circumstance."
The result is a "comedy" of decidedly dark dimensions.
"It \o7 is\f7 a shocker, a play that says 'Boo!' at the end. There are twists and turns, things that aren't as they seem," Parks concedes about this blacker-than-black study of family life gone mad. "It catches people off balance--and the playwright means to do that. He does not want people to be comfortable. I think he primarily wanted to tell a story we hadn't heard before--different from all the other serious, well-meaning plays about disability."
Parks defers to the intentions of playwright Whyte (who's disabled, but not quadriplegic) in playing the role: "I feel obligated to Ron's truth, what he wanted to say--and then what I can find in my own life to fit that. The object is not to let the world see me. The object is for me to help audiences see the character the playwright has written. I hope people will have some sympathy and understanding of where he might be coming from. But false sympathy is definitely something Ron's not interested in."
The moral of the story?
"That you can get hurt if you don't know what you're dealing with," Parks said soberly. "These people are not beasts crouching in a jungle waiting to get you. They're like patches of quicksand; you sink in before you know what's happening. Look, you have three people who grow up straight and tall. But if one of them is distorted or disabled, then the others grow around it--in a crippled, crooked way. I don't think this play is about jerking you around. It's about shaking you up, making you think."