Hell on Wheels 

Being in a wheelchair doesn't stop playwright Mike Ervin from having a few laughs at the expense of the disabled.

The funniest play in Chicago right now is probably the one on Victory Gardens' smallest stage, a dark comedy about an epileptic who gets it on with a quadriplegic. Actually The History of Bowling, now in its second limited run, is about the absurdist worldview of Mike Ervin, a self-described smart-ass in a wheelchair who grew up in a working-class neighborhood on the city's southwest side. "I've always had a sense of humor about how people look at me," says Ervin, who has muscular dystrophy. "I have a tendency to deal with pain by telling a joke. It serves me OK."

He was born 44 years ago on an army base in West Germany and raised near Midway Airport, where his mother still lives. "My dad was a career army man who fought in World War II," he says. "My mom worked mostly as a waitress. She appreciates art and opera. We used to fight about whether to put opera or baseball on the radio. I wanted the baseball."

Ervin says he decided to become a writer because of Mike Royko. "I started reading him in about the seventh grade and thought, 'Boy, this guy's got a great job.' I liked his sarcasm--it appealed to the budding smart-ass in me."

Back then his neighborhood had more than its share of bigots, but he didn't play with the neighbors much. "In those days kids with disabilities got shifted out, so you didn't have much interaction," he says. "I do remember hearing a lot of the we-hate-Martin Luther King stuff. I heard stuff like 'He'd better not come around me, 'cause I got a gun under my bed.' My sister called me a year ago because there was a story in the paper about a fireman who had a human rights complaint because he refused to show his house to a black person. It almost made me nostalgic--ah yes, the old neighborhood."

He and his sister, Cris Matthews, who also has muscular dystrophy, went to Walter Christopher, a public grammar school for the disabled near 51st and Western. They went to high school at the Illinois Children's Hospital School, at Roosevelt and Damen. "High school was going from the frying pan to the fire in terms of segregation," says Ervin. "It was a state-run boarding school. A lot of the kids were wards of the state who lived there year-round, until they threw them out at Christmastime. It was different for me and Cris. We got to go home on weekends, holidays, and during the summer."

His parents got divorced when he was ten, and his father moved to Florida, leaving his mother to raise the kids on her own. "She was very attentive, loving, and supportive--and way ahead of her time," says Ervin. "Back before we had mechanized chairs you'd see her pushing one of us in one chair with one hand and pulling the other with her other hand. She had a great attitude about it. It was 'Got to go--let's go!' None of this sitting-around-the-house stuff.

"She tried to get us into a Catholic school, but they told her, 'We don't take kids with wheelchairs.' She wanted us to go to Kennedy High School [the neighborhood school], but they weren't taking disabled kids. Of course now that reaction would violate, I don't know, ten different equal-access laws. There weren't any able-bodied kids at my school. It was like, 'Got a disability?'--and I mean any disability--'Send 'em there.' There was this girl who had a false nose. She was either born without her nose or lost it somehow. Someone made a nose that looked like it was made out of clay and glued it on her. Sometimes it fell off. They sent her to my school--all the freaks were there. Disability kids have their own issues. We have our own hierarchy. People who can talk think they're better than ones who can't. People who are retarded think they're better than the profoundly retarded. It's all very divisive. It pits people against each other and keeps us from getting stuff done."

His mother had high expectations for her children. "It was 'You're going to college,'" Ervin says. "It just never occurred to her that someone else might have other ideas." As it turned out, he had only one real choice, Southern Illinois University. "It was the only university back then that was completely accessible to the disabled," he says. He majored in journalism and English, moved back to the southwest side after graduating in 1978, and got a job writing obituaries for the Daily Southtown. "It was the journalistic equivalent of hell," he says.

By the early 1980s he was freelancing, specializing in wryly satirical stories (some of which he wrote for the Reader). He moved to the north side and fell in love with a graphic artist named Anna Stonum, who had Friedreich's ataxia, a degenerative nerve and muscle disorder, and also used a wheelchair. They married in 1987.

In the mid-80s Stonum, Ervin, and his sister joined the newly visible, increasingly strident disability rights movement. They disrupted CTA board meetings, picketed bus stops, and blocked traffic in an effort to force the CTA to add lifts to buses. They loudly disapproved of Jerry Lewis's Labor Day muscular dystrophy telethon, saying it caused as many problems as it solved. "It perpetuates this image of disabled kids as helpless little victims who have to be pitied," says Ervin. They demanded that the state continue paying for in-home care. Ervin chronicled each fight in mainstream publications and in publications directed at the disabled.

About three years ago Ervin decided to take a Victory Gardens playwriting workshop led by Susan Nussbaum, an actress, director, and playwright. "That got me thinking about how I might express some of my ideas and themes about disability," he says. The resulting play, honed during hours of readings at workshops, revolves around two main characters attending the same college who are polar opposites: Lou, the epileptic, and Chuck, the quadriplegic. Lou's an utterly self-absorbed idealist who's still traumatized by a seizure she had at a high school pep rally and likes to luxuriate in what Ervin calls "the depths of her shallowness." As the play opens, she's anguishing about issues her disability raises, wondering, for instance, whether it's morally wrong to get a doctor's note to avoid gym. "I felt cheap and sleazy after I did it," she says, "not because it was a lie, but because I played the cripple game."

Chuck is much more freewheeling. He urges Lou to stop taking her epilepsy pills ("It's like wearing a toupee--what have I got to hide?") and brags about how well he plays the cripple game. "I am the king of the doctor's notes," he says. "I could fill a gymnasium with all the doctor's notes I've had to get."

To Lou the world is filled with outrageous injustices, most of which, to hear her hilarious ranting and railing, are somehow or other directed at her. To Chuck it's a carnival, and everyone, including the nondisabled, is a freak. Sometimes he's angry, sometimes he's amused.

The two are brought together by Barnes, a sadistic gym teacher who, as he tells Lou, has created "a special section for the people with handicaps. Maybe you can't literally participate in athletic activities, but you surely can write term papers about them."

Chuck persuades Lou to cowrite--actually she takes his dictation--a term paper called "The History of Bowling," which is about his experiences in something called "Bowling Buddies." As Chuck explains, "Bowling Buddies was founded in 1962 by Mrs. Roger McDonald as a monument to her late husband. She wanted to combine his two greatest passions in life: service to the less fortunate and bowling." It's a "crippled kids bowling club. Every third Sunday. The bastards! I think they were Christian kids. Real clean rah-rah types. I think maybe we were extra credit. I don't know. They'd close down Rainbow Lanes for the afternoon and bring the cripples in. And Bowling Buddies' motto was 'Anybody can bowl a strike.' They had this ramp. It looked like a miniature playground slide. They'd put the ball on top, and you'd push it, and it would roll down the ramp and head down the lane. Anybody could do it. There was this kid with no arms. He'd push the ball with his head."

What really irritates Chuck is that no one ever rolled a gutter ball. They weren't allowed to. "Because the Christians ran alongside the lane, and if the ball headed for the gutter they'd kick it back on course."

Chuck sees that as yet another example of how the nondisabled demean the disabled. "What's wrong with throwing a gutter ball?" he wails. "Ever since the dawn of time there have been gutter balls. It's a fact. Better learn to deal with it."

The play's other character is Chuck's deaf and blind roommate, Cornelius, also known as Corny. He has a black belt in judo, is an expert at yoga, and is generally a rotten SOB. Around the guys, he's Mr. Macho--gambling, cursing, and knocking back stiff martinis. Around women, he's all sensitivity, quoting poems by Baudelaire, sipping white wine, and "gazing" at the moon--whatever it takes to get into their pants.

The humor in the scenes with Cornelius, which generally draw the loudest laughs, is Chekhovian--the characters talk obsessively but rarely seem to hear anyone else. "For Chuck, who has a harder time opening up, it's easy to talk to Corny, because there's no risk involved," Ervin explains. "He can pour out his heart, reveal his innermost secrets, and there's no chance that he'll have any of it used against him, because Corny can't hear a thing that he's saying. Of course Lou has no problems opening up--she'll open up to anybody. I guess she likes talking to Corny because he's a captive audience. He sits longer than most people would."

Some of the play's fans liken the repartee between Lou and Chuck to bits on Seinfeld, but Ervin says his favorite playwright is Beckett. "I like how he combines humor and darkness," he says. "Of course I wouldn't even begin to think that I'm like him. Really, I'm just having fun with things that I've been thinking about for a long time. The two main characters are exaggerations of a couple of friends. Sometimes I wondered what it would be like if they ever got together. I got the idea about the PE exemption from another friend who has epilepsy. She told me her teacher made her sit on the side in uniform and write about what the class was doing. Apparently this guy was as bad as Barnes. It got to the point where she was sitting by the pool in a swimming suit taking notes. I decided to change swimming to bowling because, let's face it, bowling is a very funny sport when you think about it. I mean, it's so unathletic. As for 'Bowling Buddies,' it's just a metaphor for all the do-gooder events that I was exposed to."

And Corny? "He's based on someone I know who's also deaf and blind and who likes to put the moves on women and pictures himself as a real Casanova. Corny's what this guy wishes he was. God, I love Corny. He's not your typical helpless disabled guy at all. He's a coldhearted, selfish bastard, and yet everyone seems to like him. Some guys have all the luck.

"Basically, what Chuck's going through is what I went through. I don't know if I agree with everything he says. I'd take epilepsy pills if I had epilepsy. Chuck's point is not that she should have seizures. He just thinks she's taking them for all the wrong reasons. Lou's worried about making a scene and embarrassing herself. And Chuck's saying that it's nice to disrupt this placid little environment. You've got to be shameless about your disability or else you'll just sit in your house all day. You have to get beyond shame and wave your freak flag high, as Jimi Hendrix would say."

By the end of 1998 the play was ready to be staged, and the opening was set for April 1999. Nussbaum was the director and four local actors--Robert Ness, Doran Schrantz, James Joseph, and Marc Silvia--were cast as Chuck, Lou, Corny, and Barnes. Then, says Ervin, "On Saturday, February 6, I was at home working on a play on Anna's computer. I said, 'Anna, could you print this out for me?' She was coming over to print it out when she had a heart attack. I called 911, and they came and got her. But it was too late. It was very difficult. It still is. We'd been together for 15 years."

The Tribune obituary summed up the elements in her life--her artistic talents, her activism, her love for Ervin, and her medical condition. "I didn't really want to go on with the play, but I guess it was good that I did," says Ervin. "Anna never got to see the production, but she was very much involved in the creation of the play. She actually did a reading of Lou during a workshop. Anna's speech was a little slurred because of her disability, but she got it right. She also designed the logo that we used [a bowling ball in a wheelchair]. I'll always use that logo. If someone says to change it I'll say, 'Screw you.'"

The play drew such favorable reviews and appreciative crowds during its first 16-show run that Victory Gardens decided to bring it back this year with the same leads and director but a funnier ending. "The main problem with directing a play for the second time is keeping it fresh," says Nussbaum. "I asked my dad [actor-director Mike Nussbaum] for advice, and he said, 'Just don't go crazy--just have fun.' The hardest thing is to keep it simple, not to overwork stuff."

Whatever she did, it must be working, because again the audience is howling. What the show needs now, she says, is "an angel," an agent perhaps, who's willing to promote it so that it can move to a larger stage when the run ends November 19. "It would be great to keep it going after this run," says Ervin. "I've got other things I'm working on. I still have the play that's in Anna's computer. I haven't touched it since she died. I couldn't look at it. But I'll probably take it out one day. It's the same sort of style. My plays could be really angry, but I'd rather make you laugh."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.

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