Last spring, just after winning his one of the lead roles in the Walnut Street Theatre’s production of Eugene O’Neill’s “A Moon for the Misbegotten,” actor Michael Toner was hit by a car. He was injured so severely that his left leg was amputated.
Nevertheless, the show will go on.
“I play derelicted souls,” said Toner, 69, who has a long career of playing tough Irish characters. “Not all of them are alcoholic and living in flop houses, but they have been beaten up by life. They may or may not be drinkers, but they are rough characters. Inside there is a fullness of spirit in the character.”
In “A Moon for the Misbegotten,” opening Jan. 12, he plays Phil Hogan, the father of Josie. The two relate to each other by trading insults.
“Where is he? Is he hiding in the house? I’ll wipe the floors with him!,” says Hogan, looking for his son who has just run away, before roaring at his daughter, “Do you have a tongue in your head, you great slut?”
“Don’t be calling me names, you bad-tempered old hornet,” Josie coolly replies. “Maybe I’ll lose my temper, too.”
“To hell with your temper, you overgrown cow.”
“I’d rather be a cow than a gimpy little buck goat.”
That last line is not in the original script. The word “gimp” was added by director Kate Galvin.
“To help the audience understand that Michael is walking with a cane, and clearly uses a prosthetic,” said Galvin. “We’re not going to ignore that’s a thing, but it’s not what the play is about.”
A close call with death
It was last June, late at night, as Toner was walking in Center City after an acting gig that he was mown down by a driver who then sped off. For hours he was left for dead in the gutter before a homeless man discovered him and called an ambulance. Toner’s life was saved, but his leg was lost.
“It triggered Vietnam PTSD on me,” said Toner, who was a combat soldier in the war. “I was having nightmares, waking up thinking I was in the jungle, firefights I had been in, guys who had been killed. I was heavy on morphine, then Dilaudid. I don’t like that stuff in my body, but I guess it killed the pain.”
During his recovery, the Walnut Street Theatre never sought a replacement.
“Honestly, we never had that conversation,” said Galvin. “We really wanted to give Michael this opportunity. As long as he was physically fit to do it, we wanted him.”
That was the big question: Would he be fit enough to perform the show 32 times in five weeks, then tour 15 cities for another four weeks?
The president of Walnut Street Theatre, Bernard Havard, closely followed Toner’s recovery, offering encouragement. When it came time to start rehearsals, the set was constructed to make it easier for Toner to navigate.
But the character, Phil Hogan, is supposed to be a physically imposing guy, someone who is quick to fight and likely to win. Not a gimpy buck goat.
“His cane — a nice shillelagh — becomes a weapon,” said Galvin. “He might not have the power in his body that we might associate with this character, but he is feisty and will come at you.”
Galvin does not want this production to be about Toner’s amputated leg, but it’s hard to miss. His gait is awkward; he’s still new at walking with a fake leg. He will likely move more gracefully once his therapists graduate him to a more sophisticated prosthesis.
“My next great goal is to get back on the tennis court to play doubles with my buddies,” said Toner.
After the “Moon for the Misbegotten” tour, Toner expects his acting life will slow down with some writing projects waiting in the wings. But he still wants to walk the boards; later this year he plans to revive “Beginning to End,” a one-man play by one of Ireland’s toughestplaywrights, Samuel Beckett.