Sitting on the floor of her dressing room, the light glinting off her scooter, Madison Ferris finishes her pre-show, quinoa-and-kale supper and smiles. “This is the dream!” she says.
In 45 minutes, she’ll be in the wheelchair that Sally Field hauls up several stairs onto the Belasco Theatre stage. Lifting herself out, Ferris will slowly propel herself on all fours into “The Glass Menagerie.”
Making your Broadway debut can be daunting for any young actress. That Ferris has muscular dystrophy makes her performance as Laura, Tennessee Williams’ “crippled” heroine, extraordinary.
Director Sam Gold says the 25-year-old has “nerves of steel.”
“Imagine coming in to read with Sally Field,” he tells The Post. “If it were me, I’d be fainting!” It was Gold’s idea to cast a physically disabled performer who could bring “real knowledge and history” to the production, which opened March 9 to mixed reviews, albeit with praise for Ferris’ strong, heartfelt work as Laura.
“We saw a lot of people and Madison came in with a real connection with the character,” says Gold, who hopes this is just the start to a remarkable career for the young actress.
So does Ferris. The Pennsylvania native came to New York nearly three years ago and, aside from two dance-theater pieces, never acted professionally.
“I love Tennessee Williams, his lyrical realism,” she says. “This is the type of work I’ve always wanted to do, whether [it’s] in my basement or on Broadway.”
She starting doing plays in fifth grade and for years took dance classes, until she started falling. In her early teens, Ferris was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy, a disease which results in progressive weakness and degeneration of the muscles.
“When you’re young, you think you’re just going through an awkward phase,” says Ferris. She shrugs. “It’s not something I talk about much. Not because I’m afraid to, but because it’s not who I am.”
It’s not something I talk about much. Not because I’m afraid to, but because it’s not who I am.
In high school, family and friends supported her — carrying her books, driving her everywhere. The only naysayer, she says, was the vocational caseworker who thought it was a “terrible” idea for her to pursue acting. Muhlenberg College didn’t think so: It gave her a hefty scholarship.
She came to New York for a job at a documentary film company, which laid her off in 2015, the same year she was locked out of her sublet and failed to book a single acting job. Other women would have gone home. Ferris flew to Australia to live with a friend. Five weeks later, her agent told her about the search for a Laura.
“I was tempted to fly back just for the audition,” she says, but it was too costly. So she made a videotape, with her friend’s cousin reading Sally Field’s part in a thick Aussie accent. After returning to the States for a callback, she was cast.
Today, Ferris says, “I’m in the best health of my life.” Set up by the show’s producers with a physical therapist and a nutritionist, she has the energy to play eight shows a week. On show days, a car service takes her to and from the Brooklyn apartment she shares with two roommates.
“The question is, ‘Do I want to keep acting professionally?’ ” she says. “The answer is yes!”