The Ocean City wave that hit local actor Rob McQuay exactly the wrong way, snapping his neck in two places and paralyzing him from the chest down, could not have crested at a worse time. His wife Chan was eight months pregnant with their second child, and the actorfinally armed with his Equity card after a lengthy tour of duty working the dinner-theater circuithad just broken into Washington’s downtown theater scene by landing a part in Woolly Mammoth’s 1990 production of The Rocky Horror Show. Hearing McQuay describe his watery near-death now, you can detect no hint of bitterness or unfocused anger in voicejust acceptance.
“When the wave hit me, and I was floating upside down in the water, my first conscious thought was, ‘Swim, start swimming.’ But nothing happened, nothing worked. So the next thought I had was: ‘OK, hold your breath. Just keep holding your breath,’” McQuay remembers, half-laughing. “I was being pushed in and pulled out, pushed in and pulled out by the waves, and at some point I had a vision of myself in a wheelchair with my son just going along a running track. At that moment, I had a prayer, and the prayer was, ‘I can deal with being a paraplegic, just let me live.’”
McQuay has done more than just live, he has done what precious few actors are able to dohe has found work. Not so much that he doesn’t have to subsidize his income (right now, McQuay teaches acting at a summer camp for kids and records books on tape at his home), but more than enough to justify sticking with his chosen profession.
“Immediately after the accident, I had friends and people come to see me in rehab, and everybody was talking about directing. ‘Finally,’ they said, ‘you can really focus on directing.’ Now, regardless of the fact that I’d only directed a little bit and that I wasn’t a director, everyone started thinking that way, and I started thinking that way,” says McQuay. “Then a few days later I thought, ‘Well, that’s ridiculous. I mean, directing’s great, it’s terrific, but I’m still an actor.’”
McQuay was back onstage four months after his accident, acting in a production of Romeo and Juliet while still learning to dress himself, get around in a wheelchair, and evensince it was no longer an automatic functionbreathe. And in the years since the accident, McQuay has done at least one show a season, working with, among other groups, Very Special Arts, the Shakespeare Theatre, and yes, finally Woolly Mammoth.
Currently, McQuay is starring as a wheelchair-bound Jesus in a production of the Stephen Schwartz musical Godspell directed by Jade Ann Gingerich. His involvement in the show is wholly appropriate, not just because the actor admits to suffering from a severe Christ complex, but because Gingerich conceived the Paradigm Players as a company where people with disabilities got a chance to work side by side with nondisabled actors and artisansa cause to which McQuay, for obvious reasons, is deeply wedded.
“I don’t mind working with a cast that’s all nondisabledin fact, we all learn a lot doing thatbut we need to develop more performers with disabilities,” he says. “What’s really neat for me is being a professional and having the theater skills and tools of a professional, combined with the fact that I’m disabled. That makes it easy for both factions to identify with me, which works well for this part, for Jesus, since he was supposedly what each person needed him to be.”
Bearded and thick-chested, McQuay does look a little like, well, the Only Son of God, but in practice he’s more John the Baptist, a trailblazer preparing the way, shaking things up and forcing Washington’s theater communitywhich, he admits, has been incredibly supportiveto see him and others like him as actors auditioning for all parts, not just the ones bound by metal spokes and wooden crutches.Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa
Godspell plays Aug. 1 at 7:30 p.m. and Aug. 2 at 2 & 7:30 p.m. at the Bethesda Academy of Performing Arts Theater, 7300 Whittier Boulevard, Bethesda. For reservations and information, call (703) 807-0785.