2022 TRUE WEST AWARDS MAGGIE WHITTUM

Maggie Whittum in the Denver Center's 'Theater of the Mind' (main photo) and in Phamaly Theater Company's 2018 staging of 'Into the Woods' (photo by Michael Ensminger).

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There are 14 wonderful actors who separately perform the Denver Center’s ongoing solo play “Theater of the Mind” for groups of just 16 at a time. But the experience is kind of, well, mind-blowing when the actor who takes you on this magical mystery tour of the many ways our mind plays tricks on us also happens to be the survivor of a massive stroke.

“You can go back and fix things,” Whittum, as a character based on Talking Heads frontman David Byrne, tells us with utter earnestness through a partially paralyzed face made radiant by every inch of its lived experience. “You have a chance to go back and make things right.”

Those words just don’t carry the same meaning and weight of possibility through any other set of lips.

In 2014, Whittum was working toward her master’s degree in Washington D.C. when her life changed in an instant. “Piece by piece, my body stopped working,” said Whittum, who underwent nine hours of brain surgery and spent 13 days on a ventilator – then set out to rebuild her crumbled life.

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Growing up in Steamboat Springs, Whittum always wanted to perform at the Denver Center – and four years after her stroke, she reached that goal as a member of the disability-affirmative Phamaly Theatre Company. (She was Cinderella’s stepmother in a 2018 production of “Into the Woods.”) But this is FOR the Denver Center. Being cast alongside Denver’s best actors in the Denver Center's big-buzz immersive experience (newly extended through Jan. 22) is not only an affirmation but an actualization.

“Maggie brought such depth and insight into the process of creating ‘Theater of the Mind,’” said her director, Andrew Scoville. “As a stroke survivor, she was always willing to share her fascination about the mysteries of the brain – not in theory but as lived experience. It was a great creative asset to have that point of view in the room. And as a skilled actor, she is able to connect with others and deliver a truly moving performance week after week.”

“Theater of the Mind” is all about experiencing the ordinary in extraordinary ways. And it ends in a full-circle moment for the audience that has nothing on the full-circle moment for the actor performing it, When Whittum tells us, “You can change the story anytime,” she’s not acting. She's demonstrating.

And it is one of the most powerful lines I’ve heard from an actor in years.

The trailer for Maggie Whittum’s upcoming documentary on her experience as a stroke survivor, 'The Great Now What.’

The True West Awards, now in their 22nd year, began as the Denver Post Ovation Awards in 2001. Denver Gazette Senior Arts Journalist John Moore celebrates the Colorado theater community by revisiting 30 of the best stories from the year past, without categories or nominations. Email John at [email protected]