October 21, 2003
New York Times
How rare is it to see two actors take the stage, both of whom are fighting life-altering diseases?
Rare enough so that when it occurs, you take note.
That's how I felt watching Lynn Redgrave and Montel Williams onstage during their tour in "The Exonerated," the controversial play about six innocent survivors of death row.
The play is gripping and the stories chilling of people who spent two to 22 years incarcerated and facing death for crimes they didn't commit.
That fatefulness is intensified knowing that Redgrave is a breast cancer survivor and Williams is fighting multiple sclerosis.
When they spoke words of courage and pondered the reasons they had been wrongly accused and their lives forever changed, they seemed to speak for themselves as well as their characters.
They were making a statement just by being there; they were telling others battling life-threatening diseases that life can go on and must go on, that employers should not and cannot discriminate against those fighting illness.
Redgrave had admitted to me in an earlier interview that she was concerned about how she would be perceived and treated when word of her illness got out.
But once The National Enquirer was poised to write the story, she spoke up, because she wanted everyone to know she was still employable.
"I needed that emotionally. And I needed my health insurance, like anybody else, and that's how I get it, by working," she said.
She had a breast removed in January, but she refused to get reconstruction so she could get back to work that much sooner.
She worked all through her chemotherapy.
She dealt with her baldness by wearing wigs onstage, and was delighted when her hair grew back. During this performance, her short, natural, 'do glowed an almost celestial white under the stage lights.
Williams, who was diagnosed with MS - a degenerative neurological condition - in 1999, looked and sounded strong onstage, the muscles he is working hard to strengthen and control rippling under his body-hugging shirt.
He has a mild form of the disease, called relapsing-remitting, which allows the patient to have periods of feeling well.
When he first went public with his diagnosis at a news conference, he admitted that he had been experiencing symptoms on and off since 1980, and couldn't believe he really had the disease.
"A couple of times (doctors) told me they thought I'd had MS. I said, 'You're crazy.' Then I'd go to another doctor and talk him into what I wanted my diagnosis to be," he said.
He has established The Montel Williams MS Foundation to finance research and to educate the public about the disease.
I don't know whether their illnesses have interfered with the actors'
performances during the tour, or will. But Redgrave has appeared elsewhere
since her surgery, and Williams is still hosting his talk show. Just continuing
to do what they have been doing is a loud message of encouragement to anyone
with a life-changing disease.
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