Suzanne Richard grasps a pink rubber dildo and inches it slowly toward the restrained young girl. In the Washington Shakespeare Company’s production of Pericles, Richard’s compact body is wrapped in a one-piece, black leather dominatrix suit; the red lights of the Island of Mytilene reflect off the spikes of her long, black porcupine wig. She barks out her Shakespeare as if she were from the toughest part of the Bard’s Brooklyn. As the wretched Boult, Richard has a grim job to do: She must inflict a rite of passage on Marina, a reluctant slave-prostitute. The house Bawd has commanded Boult to “crack the glass of her virginity.”
Boult stands on a bed, less than four feet over her victim. Her tiny hands claw a chain-link fence to help her keep her balance. She maneuvers the vein-laced dildo further between the young girl’s legs. The girl pleads for her chastity, puking out phrases of virtue and righteousness. Her tormentor is unremorsefuluntil she spots a glimmer of gold. A bribe! Boult seizes it, bends to grab her crutches and shuffles away, the dildo dangling limply in her hand.
In director Joe Banno’s Shakespeare, prostitutes are dildo-wielding little people, and Pericles is an American warrior just back from ‘Nam. “That last scene was a lot more disturbing [originally],” recalls Richard (pronounced ree-SHARD) “We actually had women in the cast walk out when we did the run-through. I wasn’t using the dildos. I was rolling up my sleeves and I was up in between her legs,” waiting to tear into the girl with her fist. As Richard tells it, several cast members protested, and Banno (who is also Washington City Paper’s opera critic) agreed to moderate the scene.
After a small rewrite, Richard was well on her way to becoming the scene stealerPericles’ most outrageous character in its most outrageous scene. Banno intentionally crafted a shocking scene, he explains, in an attempt to remain loyal to Shakespeare. Nancy Grosshans, for instance, a veteran of the WSC known for playing grandmother types, plays the Bawd in a skimpy leather S&M getup. The Bawd’s other assistant, played by Desmond Dutcher, wears leather briefs and fishnet stockings, his eyelids painted black. Grosshans, Dutcher, and Richard have developed a close friendship during the production and have come to refer to one another as members of the “little Mytilene family,” says Grosshans. “Suzie has a quick, wry sense of humor that particularly lends itself to the role,” she says. It’s the kind of scene that fits an actress like Richard well, Banno agrees. “She’d work out a way to shock more people,” he adds with a laugh.
Richard, 27, was born with osteogenesis imperfecta, a disease that disrupts normal growth and causes bones to become brittle; it affects fewer than 50,000 Americans. She has had 80 broken bones, 20 surgeries, and two steel-rod implants. The preferred term for people like her, she explains, is “little person.”
To appreciate the difference between yourself and Richard, trip yourself and land lightly on one leg. Richard’s leg would probably break if she did the same thing. When she performed as a porter in the Baltimore Shakespeare Festival last year, Kelly Dunn, the director, asked her to jump into the arms of Macbeth. Richard knew better, though, and agreed to walk down some stairs insteadshe had already cracked her hip in college during a performance of Titus Andronicus, when one of the actors accidentally knocked her to the ground.
Shortly after that setback, she fell while attending a Grateful Dead concert, injuring her hip and shoulder blade. The timing was awful: Her next role required a great deal of physical agility on crutches and a certain degree of stoicism. She was to play all seven dwarves in an adaptation of Snow White, titled Snow White Out West. Richard would contrive a different accent and wear a different costume for each dwarf. After insisting that the writer, Janet Stanford, change the script (written with Richard in mind) to eliminate the term “midget gold miner,” she felt comfortable enough with the play to proceed, although she concedes it was “a little hard to swallow.” Richard’s industrious dwarves whistled “Heigh-ho, heigh-ho/It’s off to work we go,” with pickaxes slung over their shoulders, in a wheelchair.
In 1979, Richard was a second-grader at College Gardens Elementary School in Rockville when she got her first role: a fat lady in a wheelchair. (She uses both crutches and a wheelchair.) She knew then that she had natural talent; yet she had no lines. When she came home crying, her mother decided it might be time to help to develop her talent. Richard was soon enrolled in an acting program at Round House Theatre in Rockville.
At Round House, Richard was as tall as most of her peers, so she did not find it hard to get lead roles. When Richard entered junior high school, however, and saw her friends growing taller, she became increasingly frustrated by the lack of variation in the roles she was getting. “When I was younger I was bent on playing ingénues,” she says. “I think that was me rebelling against what society was asking me to play.” Her relatively small stature made it easy to typecast her; so she became determined to adapt her physical characteristics into roles that would work in her favor. She did not fight to play the star.
Instead, the actress accepted the roles directors gave her and provided audiences with some comic relief. She drew laughs as Givola, a gangster in Brecht’s farce, The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui; as a porter in Macbeth (where they moved up her curtain call because she was so funny); as Jerry, a Christlike figure, in Edward Albee’s Zoo Story; and as a tragically funny heroin addict in Lanford Wilson’s Balm in Gilead, which was her first big serious role. In the last scene of Gilead, Richard’s character recited a monologue outlining how she had come to be a junkie. After her monologue, Richard recalls, she walked offstage in tears. “I was freaking out because [no one] was talking or laughing, and I was really used to getting that kind of feedback,” she says. But a friend pointed out to her that, in fact, the scene was so powerful it had left the audience silent.
When it came time for college, Richard left the security of her family in Maryland for the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, where she studied theater arts. She refined her skills by performing in dozens of productions, from Hugo’s Les Misérables to Alice in Wonderland, and it was at UNC that she figured out how to transcend her limitations onstage. She crafted her acting technique to escape the perpetuity of gimmick roles. Richard had to work hard to make people forget about her disabilityto convince them that she was not simply “working out her problems” with disabilities, she says.
After she graduated, she and a few fellow thespians created the Open Circle Theater Company, now based in Gaithersburg. The theater was designed as a forum for new writers and directors looking to produce their own work. Richard wrote, directed, and starred in an autobiographical playa series of monologues and poemstitled Wind Chimes and Moonbeams at Open Circle. At around the same time, she also scored the lead role, the pathetically delicate Laura, in Tennessee Williams’ seminal first play, The Glass Menagerie, at the Germantown Stage, also in Gaithersburg.
Her success with complex roles helped Richard break away from the kinds reserved for little people, the kinds that presumably inundated the offices of Billy Barty. Ones where little people are funny or weird or curious, like Tattoo shouting “the plane, the plane” in Fantasy Island, the Munchkins gaily dancing in The Wizard of Oz.
She still had to reconcile the two sides of her life, however: her career as a stage actress (rather than a “disabled stage actress”) and her work as a public symbol of her disabilityone in which she found herself testifying in front of the House Ways and Means Committee, calling for an increase in funding for genetic research, and meeting with Maryland state legislators in her abortive reign as Miss Wheelchair Maryland.
“I didn’t get to go to the national pageant, because I was kicked off,” she says cheekily. Richard says the pageant organizers wanted her to play figureheadless an outspoken champion than an endearing mascot. (When you meet her, you can quickly divine the irony of that prospect.) She wanted a platform from which she could raise awareness about genetic disabilities. In the end, after a frustrating lobbying effort with Maryland Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend (where they ended up chatting about their mutual admiration for Eunice Shriver), Richard and the Miss Wheelchair folks parted ways.
When you are smart, funny, confident, and physically disabled, that’s what you do: You become the success story, the poster child for people with disabilities. Like Christopher Reeve with his spinal injury, you represent something that you have overcome. It requires a rare form of tolerance and charisma, which Richard happens to possess. “I make a good spokesperson,” she says, taking a drag off her second cigarette.
Richard’s confidence as an actress and advocate has also helped her to become more comfortable in her personal life. She used to be self-conscious about dating, but now she is “mercenary” about the singles scene, she says. Her difficulties with the normal things that people dohousekeeping and getting from place to placehave forced Richard to adapt to a world designed for big people with Darwinian grit. She washes the dishes by standing on her wheelchair, she drives by using a hand crank to accelerate and brake, and she pulls her towel off of a lowered rack in the shower. All of these activities are perfectly banal for big people, but symbolic for Richard of her singular freedom. “I don’t think that she believes she has any physical limitations,” says Ian LeValley, who plays the lead in Pericles.
Richard continues to earn more challenging roles. After Pericles, she plans to stage-manage a children’s show titled Capture the Moon, at the Bethesda Association for Performing Arts’ Imagination Stage. This fall, she will return to the director’s chair at the Germantown Stage in Gaithersburg for its performance of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible.
At the same time, she concedes certain limitations. “I feel like I could do a lot more work,” she says, “but it’s hard to get people to envision that. I’ve had to let it go a little bit.” As Banno explains, all directors must take into account the physical characteristics of an actor when deciding whom to cast in a role. It would seem bizarre for a black male to play Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady. And Richard cheerfully accepts that she probably will never play a giant: “It’s much more understandable to have me do Jack.”CP