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A Strong Second Act

At a Downey rehabilitation center, patients recovering from trauma find new confidence in performing.

January 02, 2002|DUANE NORIYUKI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The beginning can be traced to the tears of Amaana Thompson. It was June, and Thompson, who had taken the bus from Inglewood, arrived early one morning for treatment at Rancho Los Amigos National Rehabilitation Center in Downey.

Linda Muccitelli saw her crying in the lobby and tried to comfort her, but Thompson, 63, said she felt buried beneath a painful past and an uncertain future. Muccitelli, an occupational therapist at the center, listened, then suggested Thompson write about her feelings.

"Who am I?" she wrote. "Where am I and when?" It was a poem about searching for one's place in the world, and finding it in a memory. Muccitelli, 37, understood. She, too, had felt adrift at times in her life. She read Thompson's poem and hung it on her office wall.

The poem sparked a connection between the two women that grew until it turned into a remarkable evening of theater, transforming not just for Thompson, but for dozens of others whose lives have been shattered by bullets, by car crashes, by illness.

Thompson had come to the center for help after injuring her shoulder in a fall, the latest trauma in a series that included brain surgery and stroke. And Muccitelli was in her 12th year of helping people rebuild physically and emotionally when she was assigned to be Thompson's occupational therapist. As the women talked, they discovered a shared passion for theater--Muccitelli is a graduate of the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in Pasadena; Thompson had acted in 36 productions of the Performing Arts Society of Los Angeles.

The words, as they sometimes do with Muccitelli, tumbled innocently out of her mouth: "We should put on a show," she said, and then she smiled.

Words kept tumbling. She started talking about how she could gather some of her patients, set up a few folding chairs in the courtyard and do a little show. She mentioned it to her acting teacher, Loree Lynn, founder of DreaMakers Center for the Aspiring Artist in Manhattan Beach. Lynn, diagnosed with polio at age 10, said she once conducted a performing arts program at a rehabilitation facility in Chicago. She offered to help coach performers.

Word went out, and half a dozen people showed up for the first meeting. Rehearsals began in September, and each week the cast seemed to grow, as did Muccitelli's vision. She saw the show as the first step toward a permanent performing arts program at Rancho. Maybe they could take their show on the road? Or have their own theater, or develop a television show set in a rehab center?

Possibilities seemed endless, the way they should seem, Muccitelli realized, to an occupational therapist.

She donated her time on evenings and weekends. When participants had no way of getting to rehearsals, she gave them rides.

As the December show date neared, 18 participants, some of them performing for the first time, prepared to take the stage, except that there was no stage. The show was held in a large conference room at the center. Chairs were set up and room left open for wheelchairs. Makeshift partitions were installed along one side of the room to provide a backstage area. Muccitelli brought drapes from home to set up a changing area.

Throughout preparations, she saw lives changing. When she learned that Carmen Pelayo, a singer, had not worn a dress since injuries in a car crash confined her to a wheelchair seven years ago, Muccitelli brought her a skirt and encouraged her to give it a try.

Like others, Pelayo, 27, was quiet and shy at first but gained confidence over time.

Ultimately the program was not about glamour or stardom or a TV series. It was about occupational therapy. It was about healing and hope, and the courage they sometimes entail. It was about making a statement that life is about what people can do, not what they can't.

Invitations for the show were sent out and almost 200 people confirmed. The performers were getting nervous. They would need more than a few folding chairs.

On the night of the show, the room is packed. Performers enter single file for their opening act, a skit in which Muccitelli plays an occupational therapist counseling her patients. It is to be followed by a series of individual performances.

Most cast members are in wheelchairs, and they are led by Autianya Pascqua. You may have seen her dancing on stage with LL Cool J or NWA before she crashed on the Hollywood Freeway one Sunday after church in 1992. You may have seen her host a cable hip-hop show in Compton. Or you may have seen her rolling down some alley at 4 in the morning a few years ago in search of crack cocaine.

The paths leading to Rancho Los Amigos emerge from darkness or voids as bodies and souls tragically broken come to heal, take inventory and gather what has been lost or stolen. Rancho averages more than 3,000 inpatient admissions and 54,000 outpatient visits a year. For the past nine years, it has been recognized as one of the top rehabilitation facilities in the nation.

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