When the Cottage Rehabilitation Hospital Foundation first reached out to Rod Lathim about organizing its annual benefit at the Lobero, he wasn’t sure how to meet the challenge. The foundation wanted him to invite a speaker who would encourage people confronting major threats to their health by espousing the transformational power of the arts. Thinking back over his years of experience in Santa Barbara as a theater director and philanthropist, Lathim realized that this night presented the perfect opportunity to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Storm Reading, a play written by and starring Neil Marcus, a man living with dystonia musculorum deformans, a rare neurological disorder that causes severe and constant muscle spasms and involuntary movements.
The play, which Lathim directed, debuted on the Lobero stage in March 1988 and went on to win numerous accolades and tour internationally. Storm Reading became the breakout hit that Lathim’s innovative Access Theatre company had been striving for, and it made Marcus famous enough to appear on both The Today Show and All Things Considered. The celebration on Friday, September 21, will be hosted by Anthony Edwards, a great supporter of Access Theatre and a guy who had a pretty good 1988 of his own, riding his success as Goose opposite Tom Cruise in the 1986 smash Top Gun to stardom as the lead in Danny Huston’s 1988 film Mr. North.
In retrospect, the most shocking thing about Storm Reading may be that it happened at all. As anyone remotely connected with the theater will tell you, original writing for the stage carries with it absurdly high levels of risk. First plays are the worst. Most of them vanish soon after they debut, never to be seen again. Yet Lathim took a chance on Marcus, even though the writing that Marcus had shown him was rough and would require hours of arduous rehearsal time to hone into an actable piece. “I guess what it comes down to is that I just felt that there was a show there,” said Lathim when I spoke with him at an area coffee house. “We were all so nervous at opening night, especially Neil. But the reactions kept coming, and they were overwhelmingly positive.” The words were largely Marcus’s own, and the three figures onstage were the author, struggling to perform coherently against the constant disruptions emanating from his disability; his brother Roger Marcus, a talented actor brought in to play the other parts; and Kathryn Voice, a gifted sign-language interpreter and dancer who would soon discover her own distinctive way to contribute to the impact of the whole.
On Friday, the cast, minus Roger Marcus but plus the gifted Matthew Ingersoll, who took over in the role soon after the show began, will reassemble at the place where it all started, the Lobero, to run six or seven scenes and to share with the audience the pleasure of watching six or seven more on film. The message, according to Lathim, is the same now as it was then: “Be who you are, and don’t let anyone else limit you.” When, during the original production, the international foundation formed to fight dystonia sought to advertise in the show’s program, Neil Marcus rejected their copy, insisting that he could not accept a merely medical definition of who he was or what his show was about. Working together, he and the foundation revised the copy and brought their medical description of dystonia into line with Marcus’s more capacious understanding. It’s this fun, upbeat, and enlightening perspective that Storm Reading delivers to this day: You aren’t only what happens to you; you are what you make of it.
Storm Reading takes place Friday, September 21, 7 p.m., at the Lobero Theatre (33 E. Canon Perdido St.). For tickets and information, see cottagehealth.org/crhevent.