Device lets partially paralyzed actor walk for 'Richard III'

Actor/director Michael Patrick Thornton is doing something he hasn't done onstage in 13 years: He's walking.

For the first time since spinal strokes left him partially paralyzed, Thornton - who uses a wheelchair - is performing at eye level with his fellow actors as the titular villain in William Shakespeare's “Richard III.”

He does so wearing a robotic exoskeleton: a computer-based, battery-operated, motion sensor device that enables people with spinal cord injuries to stand and walk. The coproduction of “Richard III,” by The Gift and Steppenwolf theaters, is the first to incorporate the futuristic-looking ReWalk, which Thornton describes as a “wearable scene partner.”

Keeping pace with Thornton and his “partner” are Winfield native Kristen Hohl and Kate Scanlan, physical therapists from the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, where Thornton recuperated and where he continues daily therapy. Hohl and Scanlan worked with Thornton for months as he prepared to play the manipulative, murderous usurper Richard, whose misshapen body reflects his twisted soul. They will alternate in the nonspeaking role of Richard's aide.

Hohl, a Wheaton North High School graduate with a doctorate in physical therapy, never imagined herself onstage. Getting a glimpse behind the scenes has been “quite an experience,” says Hohl, who praised Thornton's skill and resolve.

“He uses ReWalk as an extension of his body,” she said of Thornton, co-founder and artistic director of Chicago's Gift Theatre. “He's not thinking about walking; he's acting. To integrate that so quickly, to become one with the device, is incredible.”

'I fought my way out'

Thornton was 24 when he suffered his first spinal stroke, a disruption of the blood supply to his spine, on St. Patrick's Day 2003. He awoke from a coma several days later unable to move anything but his eyeballs.

Two weeks later, the Jefferson Park native suffered a second stroke. His prognosis was dire. He received last rites twice. Doctors told him he would never walk again.

But Thornton fought back.

He underwent grueling physical and speech therapy, which involved reciting Shakespeare's sonnets and soliloquies to develop breath control. Within months, he directed a play at The Gift. A year later, he took his first steps.

Before long, he resumed acting in Chicago and on ABC where he had a recurring role on the drama “Private Practice.”

“I forgot how hard I had to work to put myself back together again,” said Thornton, who won a 2006 Joseph Jefferson Award for his performance in Gift Theatre's “The Good Thief.”

Michael Patrick Thornton rehearses for "Richard III" with physical therapist and Winfield native Kristen Hohl. Courtesy of Joel Moorman

He says he never questioned why this rare condition affected him.

“To fixate on 'why?' leads you down a dark and twisting hallway,” he said. “It's a fool's errand. You'll never know.”

Thornton was to play Richard last year at Next Theatre in Evanston, but its closing in November 2014 put the production in jeopardy.

Enter writer/actor Tracy Letts, the Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning Steppenwolf Theatre ensemble member. Letts' intervention resulted in Steppenwolf agreeing to produce the show with The Gift and director Jessica Thebus, in partnership with the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago.

What excited Thornton about taking on this physically demanding role, typically played by an able-bodied actor, was RIC's willingness to engage in a frank, challenging conversation on the subject of disability.

  Michael Patrick Thornton guides a motorized exoskeleton using a control panel on his wrist that allows him to stand and walk while portraying "Richard III." Mark Black/

“Disability gets consigned to the inspirational triumph story where a saint-like patient quietly bears the load and teaches us all how to appreciate what we have,” he said. “That is not Richard III.”

Richard's flaw is that he attaches too much to his disability, Thornton said. Richard, whom Shakespeare imagined as a hunchback, believes once he's vertical, everyone will love him. He's mistaken.

Defying expectations

  Thornton is helped into the robotic legs by Kate Scanlan, one of two physical therapists who will be on stage with Thornton during "Richard III" by The Gift Theatre and Steppenwolf Theatre. Mark Black/

Dr. Arun Jayaraman, director of the Max Nader Lab at RIC's Center for Bionic Medicine, feared Thornton wouldn't manage ReWalk.

He was wrong.

“He started walking on day one,” Jayaraman said. “It was a shocker.”

Hohl attributed Thornton's rapid progress to a combination of personality, determination and refined body awareness developed through his training as an actor.

Thornton is unique in that respect. Most people using wearable robotics have injuries lower on their spinal cord. Candidates must have good balance, upper body strength and some range of motion in their limbs, and they must undergo extensive training before using the device, which requires the presence of an assistant or therapist, said Jayaraman, who expects they will become more common as technology improves and the $75,000 price declines.

Michael Patrick Thornton, co-founder and artistic director of The Gift Theatre, stars in "Richard III," produced in partnership with the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago. Courtesy of Claire Demos

Jayaraman says the device offers significant physiological and psychological benefits, particularly in combating depression, which typically overtakes people told they will never walk again. To that end, while robotics offer people like Thornton only a measure of added independence, they provide an enormous emotional lift.

“He (Thornton) can feel like a king in a king's play,” Jayaraman said.

“Richard III”

Location: Steppenwolf Garage Theatre, 1624 N. Halsted St., Chicago. (312) 3335-1650 or or

thegifttheatre.orgShowtimes: 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday, 3:30 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday through May 1Tickets: $30-$40

Article Comments
Guidelines: Keep it civil and on topic; no profanity, vulgarity, slurs or personal attacks. People who harass others or joke about tragedies will be blocked. If a comment violates these standards or our terms of service, click the "flag" link in the lower-right corner of the comment box. To find our more, read our FAQ.