Struck Down

Once inches from death’s door, actor Paul Tamney is finding his way back to the stage.

By Justin Hayford

Paul Tamney intended November 7, 1998, to be his last night on a Chicago stage. He’d been planning to walk away for months, whenever Theater Oobleck’s Necessity closed. But he had no idea how catastrophic that Saturday-night exit would be.

Tamney, who was 36, had dedicated 14 years to storefront theater, appearing with companies like the Curious Theatre Branch, Oobleck, Redmoon, and the Neo-Futurists. A talented physical comedian and a devotee of David Mamet–who’d once visited his acting class at the Goodman theater school and advised them all to drop out–Tamney consistently turned in some of the most inventive, convincing performances on any stage in the city. But after years without commercial success, New York beckoned. He’d performed the previous two summers at the New York International Fringe Festival and felt his future was there. Still, on the night Necessity closed, he felt “profoundly sad about [leaving], and kind of alone in this sadness, for Chicago didn’t really care, the theater didn’t really care.”

The few new comedic bits he’d discovered during the show’s final weekend cheered him some, but the sadness began to overwhelm him. He was extremely stressed about his impending move. He started smoking again, a habit he’d stopped six months earlier. After a lot of heavy smoking that weekend, he awoke Sunday morning with an intense headache, “like a soccer ball with way too much air, but confined to my skull.” He downed some aspirin and berated himself for what appeared to be a cigarette hangover.

But the headache stayed. For days. “I was starting to have trouble thinking about anything other than the headache,” he recalls. “There were times I wanted to bash my head to get rid of it.” He continued to work at his day job as a carpenter, but installing fixtures one day he wound up on the floor, finding a rare moment of solace playing with a cat.

Keep going, he told himself, dragging through the next few painful days, which seemed to blur into one. He had a lot to do before his move to New York: get new head shots, call his agent for advice, invite other agents to a screening of Our Father, a film by Bryn Magnus and Eric Wright in which Tamney starred. But under the crushing pain he didn’t care if he ever heard from his agent again, didn’t care if anyone came to the screening, didn’t care if New York fell into the ocean. He quotes a line from the film to describe his grinding lethargy: “The confusion and exhaustion of this inner battle suffocate me and keep me at a cautious distance.”

At some point that week Tamney called a friend in New York. “She wasn’t home, so I started leaving a message. But I felt very inarticulate, as if my mouth was cold from the weather. I concentrated, but I still couldn’t unslur myself from this tangled tongue.” His friend never called back; probably she couldn’t understand a thing he said.

Maybe I’m just tired, he thought. I’ve been battling pain for days…no, years. Ever since his girlfriend committed suicide in 1996. Maybe I’ll get high and have a good cry. He’d been doing that a lot over the last two years.

His friends suspected something more than fatigue. Sharon Gopfert, who’d also appeared in Our Father, says she’d noticed subtle changes in Tamney months before. “He just didn’t seem as alive and bright and optimistic as he was while we were working on the film the year before,” she recalls. “His appearance was sort of ratty. I loved Necessity, but his work was just not as bright as it had always been.”

One night Gopfert and her boyfriend, Curious Theatre member Mark Comiskey, stopped by to pick Tamney up. Comiskey rang the bell, but Tamney didn’t answer. When Comiskey went in, he found Tamney sitting contentedly, apparently not understanding what the doorbell meant. The three headed out. “Once we got to the bar, he just wandered off,” Gopfert says. “He wouldn’t come back in–we had to lead him inside. My friends thought he was drunk, but I knew he wasn’t. I asked him, ‘Are you on some sort of hallucinogenic or something?'”

The turning point arrived one week after Necessity closed. Gopfert called Tamney all day Saturday and Sunday but never reached him. Finally he called back Sunday night and told her about the nonstop headache. He also mentioned that the pain had caused him to throw up that night. “That’s what really scared me,” Gopfert says.

The next day Gopfert called Our Father director Wright from work and asked him to swing by Tamney’s house to check on him. At about the same time, Tamney arrived home to discover that he’d locked himself out of his apartment. The headache hadn’t let up for nine straight days. Hoping to climb in through a window, he turned over a garbage can, jumped on top of it, and a moment later came crashing down, gouging his leg on a paint can. He’d been standing up for only a few minutes, lost in confusion, when Wright pulled up in his car. He rushed Tamney to Cook County Hospital.

“I like being in hospitals sometimes, because I like to cheer people up,” Tamney says. “But this wasn’t one of those times.” A CAT scan revealed that Tamney had had a stroke.

Hospital personnel didn’t even keep Tamney overnight. “They wished me luck,” he says, “and sent me on my way.” Wright brought him to Gopfert and Comiskey’s apartment around midnight. “I just flipped,” Gopfert says. “He was drooling, he was dropping things, he was like a three-year-old. I couldn’t believe they let him out like that.” Tamney crashed that night on Gopfert’s bed. The next morning she called Cook County and told them that if someone didn’t see Tamney immediately she would go to the press. Everyone piled into the car and headed back to County.

“I don’t remember much of that visit,” Tamney says. “Telling the doctors the same story over and over about the play, the cigarettes, etcetera. This time at least they gave me medication–an expensive form of Tylenol that I waited in a long line for.” That evening, when he went out to dinner with Gopfert and Comiskey, Tamney tried to say Sharon’s name. “She thought I called her ‘sweetie lovebird’ instead of Sharon Gopfert.”

A few days later Tamney’s parents came to town and took him to their home in Centerville, Virginia, where he began seeing a slew of specialists. “They took EKGs, MRIs, CAT scans, did blood work, made me swallow something to examine my heart from the inside,” he says. Aside from slightly elevated cholesterol, purportedly the result of bad eating habits, nothing turned up. As one of his doctors explained, no cause is ever found in 30 percent of stroke victims Tamney’s age. “‘It may just be a stroke of bad luck,’ I told my doctor, and wondered if I should patent the phrase,” says Tamney. “I suggested I might still write it off as a bad hangover. He told me it could’ve killed me just as easily as it didn’t. He said that if I had another cigarette, I couldn’t come back to see him.”

Tamney’s stroke was in the right frontal lobe, leaving him in what he calls a fog. “I could understand what was coming in, but I couldn’t get anything out. It was too much work.” Simple tasks like taking a shower completely exhausted him. It was weeks before he spoke. “I thought I was so tired from the ordeal that I just didn’t want to speak,” he says. “When I finally did, it was slow and methodical, always in my lower register. Something felt wrong.” He went to a throat specialist and discovered that his left vocal chord was partially paralyzed. The actor’s instrument had become a drone.

Worst of all, the only treatment doctors could offer was time. Just be patient, they told him again and again. In a few years he would probably recover.

So he decided to start his own rehabilitation. “I’ve always had a very physical approach to life, and decided my body needed to be rebuilt in order to rebuild the inside.” He went out jogging. “The first day I tried it, the sun made my head pound like nothing had changed. So I switched to walking. The doctors all thought walking to be a great thing. I was supposed to feel excited that I could walk.

“I had to start rejoicing in little victories, which was hard. So I shaved. So big deal.”

Still, with constant encouragement from his friends back in Chicago–most notably actor Abby Sher, with whom he spoke every few days–he kept at it. “My friends in Chicago literally saved me,” he says.

After several months he was walking a few miles a day. He no longer had to lie down after taking a shower. He felt it was time to follow through on his plan to move to New York. “My parents were worried about that,” he admits. “I wasn’t as outgoing as I used to be, definitely not as sharp or thorough. But I have three aunts and some cousins in Brooklyn. I thought if my aunts love me the way I love my nieces and nephew that I would be OK.”

But before he left for New York he tested the waters by staying with his brother Joe in a Virginia suburb for a while. “I could feel the damage but I couldn’t see it,” he explains. “Before, my physicality was a well-oiled thing. The oil had now turned to glue.” Joe manages a computer learning center, so Tamney signed up for a class, hoping to learn some marketable skills. “In the first hour of class, I found my voice sometimes would not register until like the third or fourth word in a sentence, which made asking questions in class impossible. I drew in and sheltered myself from the world. It’s amazing how much confidence and self-esteem are wrapped up in the existence of a voice.”

After a few more months of progress by “baby steps,” Tamney moved to New York in February, settling in a Brooklyn apartment above an aunt’s restaurant. He couldn’t return to carpentry, since he didn’t feel he could handle power tools safely. Instead he took a job in a coffee shop run by a friend.

He also became acquainted with theater legend Joseph Chaikin, founder of the Open Theater. Chaikin suffered a major stroke 15 years ago but continues to direct, act, and teach. Tamney had been introduced to him briefly in the summer of 1997, when Chaikin came to the New York fringe fest and saw the Neo-Futurists’ production of K, in which Tamney starred. “When I moved to New York, I wrote him a letter and explained my situation,” Tamney says. A few days later Chaikin’s assistant called to set up a meeting between the two. It was the first of many. “We get together every couple of weeks and talk about recovery. It’s great talking to someone who’s been there, who’s kind and always interested in the real struggles of life. To hear him say it felt endless for him is reassuring for me that maybe I won’t go crazy.”

What may drive him crazy, though, are all the unpaid medical bills. Like many of Chicago’s theater talents, Tamney was uninsured. Though his sister, who works in the medical profession, called in every favor she could and got her brother bargain rates, he estimates that he still owes around $10,000. Continuing one of the more noble traditions on the Chicago fringe, Chicago’s theater community will gather Monday evening at 7 at the Neo-Futurarium, 5153 N. Ashland, to raise money for Tamney’s medical expenses. The benefit, hosted by Beau O’Reilly, will feature performances by many of Tamney’s former acting partners–Danny Thompson, Jenny and Bryn Magnus, the Neo-Futurists–as well as music by Tallulah, Family Problem, Whiskey Drill, and Vernon Tonges. The suggested donation is $15; call 773-327-6666 for more information.

These days Tamney is trying to be satisfied with baby steps, since his extraordinary acting skills have now been buried by the mental sludge of the stroke. “I walk down the street, and I can feel inside that my mind can’t go to the heightened state of a stage life,” he says. “It’s like a switch that’s turned off. I can’t do what I love to do. What was once my salvation is now the root of my struggle.”

This summer Tamney will face his greatest challenge on the journey back to an acting career: he’s slated to appear in Necessity at Theatre on the Lake, reprising the role that was nearly his last anywhere. “It will be a great opportunity to gauge my progress, since it was the last thing I did before the stroke,” he says. “I’m nervous, but too overjoyed to know it. I can’t tell you what my capacity level is. My mind isn’t sharp and can only process slowly, which onstage may bore people to tears. But if I’m onstage, I’ll be loving it, believe me.

“Acting is in me, but it’s buried now. It’s there, I can feel it, I just can’t tap it. But when I do, it will be lovely.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Charles Eschelman.