A Strong Second Act
At a Downey rehabilitation center, patients recovering from trauma find new confidence in performing.
By DUANE NORIYUKI
TIMES STAFF WRITER

January 2 2002

The beginning can be traced to the tears of Amaana Thompson. It was June, and Thompson, who had taken the bus from Inglewood, arrived early one morning for treatment at Rancho Los Amigos National Rehabilitation Center in Downey.

Linda Muccitelli saw her crying in the lobby and tried to comfort her, but Thompson, 63, said she felt buried beneath a painful past and an uncertain future. Muccitelli, an occupational therapist at the center, listened, then suggested Thompson write about her feelings.

"Who am I?" she wrote. "Where am I and when?" It was a poem about searching for one's place in the world, and finding it in a memory. Muccitelli, 37, understood. She, too, had felt adrift at times in her life. She read Thompson's poem and hung it on her office wall. The poem sparked a connection between the two women that grew until it turned into a remarkable evening of theater, transforming not just for Thompson, but for dozens of others whose lives have been shattered by bullets, by car crashes, by illness.

Thompson had come to the center for help after injuring her shoulder in a fall, the latest trauma in a series that included brain surgery and stroke. And Muccitelli was in her 12th year of helping people rebuild physically and emotionally when she was assigned to be Thompson's occupational therapist. As the women talked, they discovered a shared passion for theater--Muccitelli is a graduate of the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in Pasadena; Thompson had acted in 36 productions of the Performing Arts Society of Los Angeles.

The words, as they sometimes do with Muccitelli, tumbled innocently out of her mouth: "We should put on a show," she said, and then she smiled.

Words kept tumbling. She started talking about how she could gather some of her patients, set up a few folding chairs in the courtyard and do a little show. She mentioned it to her acting teacher, Loree Lynn, founder of DreaMakers Center for the Aspiring Artist in Manhattan Beach. Lynn, diagnosed with polio at age 10, said she once conducted a performing arts program at a rehabilitation facility in Chicago. She offered to help coach performers.

Word went out, and half a dozen people showed up for the first meeting. Rehearsals began in September, and each week the cast seemed to grow, as did Muccitelli's vision. She saw the show as the first step toward a permanent performing arts program at Rancho. Maybe they could take their show on the road? Or have their own theater, or develop a television show set in a rehab center?

Possibilities seemed endless, the way they should seem, Muccitelli realized, to an occupational therapist.

She donated her time on evenings and weekends. When participants had no way of getting to rehearsals, she gave them rides.

As the December show date neared, 18 participants, some of them performing for the first time, prepared to take the stage, except that there was no stage. The show was held in a large conference room at the center. Chairs were set up and room left open for wheelchairs. Makeshift partitions were installed along one side of the room to provide a backstage area. Muccitelli brought drapes from home to set up a changing area.

Throughout preparations, she saw lives changing. When she learned that Carmen Pelayo, a singer, had not worn a dress since injuries in a car crash confined her to a wheelchair seven years ago, Muccitelli brought her a skirt and encouraged her to give it a try.

Like others, Pelayo, 27, was quiet and shy at first but gained confidence over time.

Ultimately the program was not about glamour or stardom or a TV series. It was about occupational therapy. It was about healing and hope, and the courage they sometimes entail. It was about making a statement that life is about what people can do, not what they can't.

Invitations for the show were sent out and almost 200 people confirmed. The performers were getting nervous. They would need more than a few folding chairs.

On the night of the show, the room is packed. Performers enter single file for their opening act, a skit in which Muccitelli plays an occupational therapist counseling her patients. It is to be followed by a series of individual performances.

Most cast members are in wheelchairs, and they are led by Autianya Pascqua. You may have seen her dancing on stage with LL Cool J or NWA before she crashed on the Hollywood Freeway one Sunday after church in 1992. You may have seen her host a cable hip-hop show in Compton. Or you may have seen her rolling down some alley at 4 in the morning a few years ago in search of crack cocaine.

The paths leading to Rancho Los Amigos emerge from darkness or voids as bodies and souls tragically broken come to heal, take inventory and gather what has been lost or stolen. Rancho averages more than 3,000 inpatient admissions and 54,000 outpatient visits a year. For the past nine years, it has been recognized as one of the top rehabilitation facilities in the nation.

Each patient has a story to tell. Alma Valentine's is about getting caught in cross-fire three years ago, about a stray bullet that pierced her right lung and exploded into her spinal cord as she was leaving a restaurant.

Seated in the third row are her parents, David and Leonor Avila of Las Vegas. They have come to see Valentine, 40, perform. She used to sing at Cinco de Mayo and other events but has not sung publicly since being injured.

Pieces of her life seemed to shatter like precious china that night. During the past three years she has overcome great anger and sadness. She has had to reach out from her wheelchair and pick up slivers of her life, one by one. "This," she says before her performance, "is the final piece."

Much of her life is back in order, even though it seemed at times she might sink only deeper and deeper into isolation. Members of her family thought she was gone forever. Tonight, she says, she will show her children she is still "Mama." And she will show her parents that again she is whole and that she might soon share a song with her father.

Blanca Alvarado, 30, has been awake since 4 a.m. for dialysis. Diagnosed in 1994 with lupus, she needs surgery but she has told her doctor it would have to wait until after the performance. "This is so important," she says. "I may never have another opportunity to do this." Her mother moved from Mexico and lives with her and cares for her. A couple of times a week, they clean houses to earn money. When Alvarado talks about her life, she often says, "I used to be an actress," having performed on American and Mexican stages.

During one rehearsal, Lynn, the acting coach, had her wheel up to each member of the cast and shout, "I am an actress, I am an actress." Part of healing, she has been told, is understanding that she is still the person she used to be. "Life is still there," she says, "and you need to find your way." As the cast leaves the stage after the opening skit, she is energized, glowing. She is an actress.

The first performer is Treanna Turner, 23, who has written a poem, "The Spirit of Love," the title of the show. Turner glides confidently back and forth, swaying from side to side across the front of the room in her wheelchair. "I love my life," she begins, then repeats the line, a bit louder each time: "I love my life. I love my life. I had to fight for my life, fight to breathe, fight to survive, fight to stay alive...."

The mother of two was injured by gunfire in 1999. Her mother sits in the front row.

Turner's voice is strong. Throughout her monologue, she moves, staring straight into the eyes, into the hearts, of audience members, punctuating words by casting a fist into the air. "Can we put down the guns and stop the killin'? Let's give our kids a better chance of livin'." The audience stands, those who can, and applauds as she leaves the room.

One by one, the performers come before the audience.

Bonnie Dodge, 61, plays the cello. She has performed with the Beverly Hills Symphony, Santa Monica Opera Co. and others. She has appeared at the Hollywood Bowl, Shrine Auditorium, and once at the Greek Theatre, she played with Jack Benny.

In the past seven years she has had eight surgeries, the result of juvenile rheumatoid arthritis. She started playing again in September. Practicing up to three hours a day, she is back with the New Valley Symphony Orchestra. Her message is one of thanks, she says, to doctors and therapists and, particularly, to one member of the audience, her daughter, Britton Dodge, 29, who has nursed her through recovery. "People had written her off," her daughter says, "and it's hard to come back when that happens."

Amaana Thompson, whose poem written in the Rancho lobby last summer inspired the event, walks slowly in darkness from the back of the room, singing "Sometimes I feel like a motherless child." As she reaches the front, she turns suddenly and drops her cane. "Where am I? Who am I, and when?"

As a child, Thompson often hid in the basement or attic of her East Los Angeles home, hoping that if she remained out of sight long enough--like dreams or darkness--she might simply fade away. There is, however, one warm memory. She is 5 years old, shelling peas on the veranda at her grandmother's. She's wearing a plaid dress and ruffled pinafore her mother made for her. For that one moment, her monologue goes, she knew exactly who she was.

As she ends her performance, there is loud applause. Thompson is not used to it and, in some ways, does not expect it. ("You applaud someone if they're putting on a show," she had said the day before her performance, "but you don't applaud somebody if they're giving their heart to you.")

Carmen Pelayo, the shy one, sings "There Will Come a Day." The wheelchair seems to disappear, leaving only her voice. Her two children are in the audience. They listen and watch their mother. She is wearing a skirt.

A trumpet sounds to introduce Alma Valentine. She wheels herself out, followed by a six-piece mariachi band. A man in the third row immediately stands alone and stares as if in disbelief. It is Valentine's father.

His eyes follow her to the center of the room, and he blows her a kiss. She begins to sing, and he remains standing. Then, slowly, he sits back down, places his head in his hands and sobs.

He taught her to sing when she was a child, and often they sang together. Once after she was injured, they tried to sing again, but Valentine's voice was gone. Her abdominal muscles were too weak to support her voice or even a sneeze or cough. It was one more thing she could not do.

Her son, David Castillo, 19, a political science major at San Jose State, is working the video camera. He helped her after she was shot, as roles seemed reversed: mother became child, dependent on her three children to help her with everyday needs.

At first, anger stood in the way. When she went to occupational therapy at another hospital, she was told, "We're going to teach you to cook." Valentine's response was quiet and cold. "I know how to cook," she said, "so how will you teach me?"

She later enrolled in therapy at Rancho, where she began to piece together her life and regain control over her body. Divorced, she fell in love again. She returned to college, studying to become a history teacher. As she takes her bow, her father stands again, blowing more kisses, applauding, seeing through tears.

The final number belongs to Pascqua, dressed in white, wearing wings of an angel. She enters in a cloud of fog, sings, glides and dances in her wheelchair. Pascqua, 32, has danced and sung from the time she was a child growing up in Torrance. A lot went wrong in her life, many things that could have taken her down: the beatings, the crash, the drugs.

"But I'm still here," she says, "so I guess that means I have a job to do." The name of her piece is "Enjoy Life While You Can."

As the cast returns for the closing song, a little girl in a pink dress walks from the front row of the audience to Pascqua and crawls into her lap. Her name is Paige Looney. She is 6 years old and was born without knees and ankles. She dreams of wearing white sneakers some day and becoming a doctor. In 1997, she suffered a stroke and has endured five heart surgeries.

Muccitelli saw her at the center one day and invited her to the show. Like others on stage and in the audience, she will face more obstacles in life--some of them huge--but tonight she finds herself in the lap of an angel. And in the arms of a song.