Frank Ferraro watches Brian Czarniecki walk, for the first time, on stilts. They're 18 inches tall, spring-cushioned, and the actor totters as he towers, squeaking deliberately across the rehearsal floor.
The show is (gravity + grace), Ferraro and collaborator Steve Pellegrino's evocation of Ferraro's experience with young-onset Parkinson's disease. Czarniecki is portraying a version of Ferraro, the halting stilt-walk mirroring Ferraro's off-balance gait.
In the scene, Czarniecki trails dancer Renee Smith, who's strutting like a majorette with a crutch for a baton, even as he is trailed by Jamie Erin Murphy, tap-dancing. Circus-like, all three circle Pellegrino, who plays accordion and sings a jaunty tune called "Road to Babylon," whose refrain in part goes, "please don't put pennies on my eyes."
During a break, still practicing the stilts, Czarniecki announces, "I don't want to fall."
"Falling would be all right," says Ferraro cheerfully, watching from his chair. "I fall every day!"
Czarniecki creeps back across the stage. "You're even winded like me," adds Ferraro, his hazel eyes bright, his face mask-like from the disease. "Welcome to my world."
Ferraro, a Penn Hills native, is an artist. He got symptoms at age 38, and four years later was diagnosed with the degenerative neurological condition. Now he's 49. He gets tremors, his hands are clawed, he suffers fatigue. Medication helps -- sometimes. He needs 20 minutes to change a light bulb.
Life with Parkinson's is "like cutting down a tree with a spoon," he says. "Every day you lose a little bit more of yourself."
Ferraro, of Edgewood, has been an activist, speaking out about the difficulty younger Parkinson's sufferers have getting disability benefits. No longer able to sculpt or paint, he also began to imagine theatrical vignettes that would express his experience.
Created with composer and veteran experimental-theater artist Pellegrino, (gravity + grace) consists of a dozen vignettes plus three monologues. The show runs Sept. 25 and 26, in Shadyside Academy's Fox Chapel campus theater.
Its creators call it an opera. It features not only Pellegrino, actors Czarniecki and Adrienne Wehr, and dancers Smith and Murphy, but also a 14-piece orchestra and 12 singers from the Renaissance City Choir.
Backers include the Parkinson Foundation of Western Pennsylvania (which the show benefits), the Heinz Endowments and the Sprout Fund, supplemented by local musican John Vento's fundraising.
The opera is based on stories others have told Ferraro as well as his own experiences: His comical first encounter with an MRI; the struggle to dress himself. Pellegrino's stories figure in, too: He and his wife once cared for her father, who had Parkinson's.
Pellegrino and Ferraro are long-time collaborators and fast friends. During rehearsal, watching Pellegrino scurry to a wipe board to diagram a scene for the other performers, Ferraro says, "I wish I could do that. He's my hands and my feet."
The show never names the disease. Ferraro says (gravity + grace) should resonate with "anyone who's struggling to deal with the fate they've been dealt."
In one scene, Czarniecki's character reads from his notebook: "I am responsible for the equation that leads me to seek the grace under the gravity of time."
"A lot of people with Parkinson's don't want to come out," says Ferraro. "I'm saying what they don't want to admit."
The opera promises to be striking visually, with lighting design by Andy Ostrowski largely supplanting a physical set. That, too, is metaphor: Like Parkinson's sufferers quick of mind but weary in body, light appears still but is always moving, Ferraro says.
But Parkinson's disease is no metaphor. Ferraro wants to tell what it's like to have it.
"Like all artists, I'm quite resourceful," says Ferraro. "I work with what I have. And this is what I have."
(gravity + grace) 8 p.m. Fri., Sept. 25; and 2 and 8 p.m. Sat. Sept. 26. Hillman Theater, Shadyside Academy, Fox Chapel. $12.50-20. 412-365-2086 or www.pfwpa.org
- (gravity + grace) cast members including (at right) composer Steve Pellegrino.