July 18, 2018
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Show goes on for ‘Forever Plaid’ actor in wheelchair

The cast of the popular Penobscot Theatre production, “Forever Plaid,” shown in a previous performance, is reunited for five performances Oct. 20-24 at Bangor Opera House.
By Andrew Neff, BDN Staff

BANGOR, Maine — In the space of 48 hours, Ben Layman became a walking — make that rolling — personification of at least two-well known mantras in the world of live theater.

He didn’t actually break a leg, but despite undergoing emergency surgery for a bad infection in his leg, the show did go on — with Layman in a wheelchair.

“They told me in the ER Monday night that I would probably not get on stage and I certainly wouldn’t be dancing, let alone walking around,” said the 36-year-old from Columbia Falls after Saturday night’s sold-out show. “Tuesday morning they were checking to make sure the infection hadn’t spread into the rest of my bloodstream, but it hadn’t and I was reacting well to the antibiotics.

“They let me out and I got out around 1:30 Thursday and got here to figure out how I could do this in a wheelchair.”

One of the four stars of Penobscot Theatre’s encore production of “Forever Plaid,” Layman refused to let a 24-hour hospitalization and surgical procedure at Eastern Maine Medical Center keep him from getting back on stage, even if he did have to forgo dance moves for rolling around in a wheelchair.

“It’s a painful little injury,” admitted Layman, who plays Jinx, one of the members of an ill-fated quartet that was killed on the way to their first big show who is now being allowed back to perform the show they didn’t get to do in life. “Most of the time I’m supposed to have my leg up in the air to help it heal, but I’m on the meds and I’m just glad to be able to be here and do this.”

And he’s doing it with a little help from his friends.

“All I had to do was get out of the hospital. Nathan, our choreographer, retooled the whole thing and made it happen,” said Layman, who is also Penobscot Theatre’s box office manager.

That would be Nathan Halvorson, who plays Smudge in the quartet.

“We spent two days reblocking the show with the step patterns and exits and entrances, so it took some doing,” said Halvorson, who had two days to rework everything in time for Thursday’s opening night show.

Layman’s other friends and castmates are Joshua Shmersal (Frankie) and Dominick Varney (Sparky).

“I’ll say about 85 percent of what the guys are doing right now is the same, but none of it is the same for me,” Layman said.

“It’s pretty weird and there are moments when I feel frustrated because I want to get up on my feet and join the energy of the show, but there are other times where it feels like we’re closer because of it.

The audience seems to notice, as much of it includes fans who caught the show two years ago when the “Forever Plaid” foursome first played the Penobscot.

“This show’s basically a new show from the one we did two years ago, and we started rehearsals two months ago,” Halvorson said. “I was worried because the staff worked so hard to put this together and we were basically totally sold out.”

The four-show run has been so popular a fifth has been added, with a 7 p.m. performance on Monday.

“I think it’s a treat for the diehard ‘Plaid’ fans and for people who have never seen it before,” Halvorson said.

There was never any thought of replacing Layman.

“Everybody asked if we’d replace him and I said no,” said Halvorson. “The point of this whole thing was the four of us. It was either Ben’s in it or it gets postponed or canceled.”

Fortunately that wasn’t the case.

“I’m able to gut this through, but this is going to be a long road to recovery for me,” said the five-year Penobscot Theatre veteran, who’s been acting for a little over 20 years. “This thing will take awhile to heal up so this will be my last foray for awhile until it’s healed. It’ll probably be a few months.”

The injury was a result of a fall Layman had in late summer on a different stage that caused him to crash through a staircase.

“It is kind of rare to add another show,” Layman said. “We did expect the shows to be popular and perhaps sell out, but we didn’t realize there’s such a large volume of people who love the Plaids as if they were a real group.”

For tickets to Monday’s show, which are $20 to $35, call the box office at 942-3333 or visit penobscottheatre.org. “Forever Plaid” is performed at the Bangor Opera House.

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