Come Hell or High Water, Tekki Lomnicki, and Tellin' Tales Theatre will change the conversation about life with disabilities | Theater Review | Chicago Reader

Come Hell or High Water, Tekki Lomnicki, and Tellin' Tales Theatre will change the conversation about life with disabilities 

These storytellers at the Fillet of Solo Festival defamiliarize their audiences' view of the world.

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Courtesy Lifeline Theatre

Tekki Lomnicki is a brilliant solo performer and the creator of Tellin' Tales Theater, which has produced and fostered creative work by people with disabilities for more than 20 years. Lomnicki has a disability that affects her height: she is a little person. She walks with a set of crutches and does her storytelling act mostly from a folding chair. When she's seated, she stands the crutches up against the chair's frame; when it's time to get up, she picks them up again.

Lomnicki, who is joined here by three fellow storytellers for Tellin' Tales' contribution to the Fillet of Solo Festival at Lifeline Theatre, doesn't ignore the subject of her disability. She wants the world to appear to you, even if it's only for the hour run time of the show, the way it appears to her and other individuals with physical challenges. She wants to alter the conversation.

The world as experienced by someone like Lomnicki—or by Di Reed, who suffers from macular degeneration, or by Linda Bannon, who was born without arms—in each case fundamentally different and distinct from the world as encountered by others on a daily basis. What appears to an able-bodied person as an obstacle may be an assistive device; what appears normal to others may prove an obstacle to these storytellers. Lomnicki tells a great story about the kind of gymnastics it took to get milk out of the refrigerator in her parents' "1950's John Birch bi-level home." Lomnicki's father was obsessed with modern furniture and could not abide the presence of footstools, handrails, or accessible cabinets in his exquisite Formica kitchen. He went in for that classic of midcentury design, a petal-pink wall refrigerator, which hung above the countertops by a bracket and presented, in the words of its slogan, "All foods at your eye level."

But the contents were not at eye level for Lomnicki. When she wanted a glass of milk as a kid, she would have to climb onto the laminated counter, grab the milk carton with one hand while balancing herself against the sink with the other, and then slide her way down to the floor without spilling. What her dad had installed as a progressive item of convenience became a hostile menace for his daughter, one of many in a house and a childhood that seemed carefully customized for everyone except her.

Lomnicki recalls reading Alice in Wonderland around this time and envying Alice her cake that made her grow tall. She wished there could have been a little bite of cake so she wouldn't have to climb on any more counters or sit on phone books while she was learning to drive. But there's more to the comparison. When Alice is tall, she lives in a tall person's world. While Lomnicki is talking, we see the world the way she used to see it, a place full of inconveniences but also opportunities—like how the ramp that was installed in the stairwell, finally, to elevate her up to her bedroom made so much noise that it could drown out boys' footsteps as they tiptoed up the stairs. There are new logistics for Alice to consider once she eats that piece of cake and her head hits the ceiling; it would be a good idea next Christmas, Alice says, to mail her feet new boots. Lomnicki's story, like Alice's, defamiliarizes the world we think we know, exposing our perception of it as merely one possible perception, our eye level as one eye level and not "eye level."

The show is full of similar opportunities for an epistemological wake-up call. I will never be able to get the phrase "stroller mommies" out of my head when I ride the CTA now that I've heard Michael Herzovi (who will be replaced by Israel Antonio for the January 26 performance) describe this species of commuter as the bane of his transit existence. Herzovi, who has congenitally shortened limbs and uses a wheelchair, is especially good at making his audience see the reality he has to navigate as, in his words, "being different in an indifferent world." One of the most powerful moments in the show is when Bannon describes learning how to walk the balance beam in gym class. That is the feeling with Lomnicki's show overall: a sense of courage against stiff odds, a willingness not only to overcome the ego blow of the difficulty but the difficulty itself, and then share that journey with strangers.   v

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