An audience gathers on a warm Friday evening in May inside the cramped Scottsdale studio of Arizona Women’s Theatre Company for a staged reading of new plays.
The star of the hour is Terry Earp, the Valley theater icon best known for historical stage plays performed by husband Wyatt Earp — great-nephew of the Old West lawman — and herself.
The work of hers they’re doing isn’t new: It’s almost 15 years old, a one-act divorce comedy called “Coralee’s Epiphany.”
What’s important, though, is a simple but triumphant fact: Earp, who suffered a paralyzing accident last year, is back home.
“My voice is being challenged right now,” she says, using a microphone to address the modest crowd from her wheelchair. “But it’s getting better.”
Eight months ago, the playwright, 57, was hit by the driver of an SUV during a morning bicycle ride, causing serious spinal cord injury. She has since endured surgeries, setbacks and small victories (all chronicled on the Earps’ Web site) and a four-month stay at Denver’s Craig Hospital, which specializes in spinal cord injury Rehabilitation. She returned to Phoenix in late March.
Meanwhile, friends and supporters have come out of the woodwork: The day after the accident, 22 people showed up to the Phoenix hospital’s intensive care unit, Wyatt says. Cards, letters and gifts poured in. Benefit concerts by artists including Rod McKuen raised $25,000.
“I’m stunned,” Earp says. “I didn’t know that many people knew me.”
At the Scottsdale play reading, people approach her with a certain uneasiness — the delicate dance of the injured: They’re not sure how close to lean, whether to speak up or slow down, where to touch. But the petite playwright with a firebrand spirit and quick wit — “Now I get all the good parking spaces,” she says — has an immediately disarming quality, even if it’s simply flashing her piercing blue eyes and smiling.
She’s an inspiration, say those who meet her.
“I don’t know if I would have the courage,” says Ilene Gordon, president of the Arizona Women’s Theatre Company.
That night, Earp’s “Coralee’s Epiphany” is a crackling hit: A two-actor show, it finds the bored wife of a trucker seeking a divorce. “Lord,” the wife (played by Joy Strimple) says, “I am tired of being nice to you.”
When zingers connect with the crowd — which is often — Wyatt touches his arm to hers and flashes a wide grin.
“It was very reaffirming,” Terry Earp says of the experience. “And I need to keep writing.”
The extent of Earp’s paralysis is still in question — Earp will likely be able to do tasks like brushing her teeth and eating, says her live-in medical technician, Danelle Gerischer, 34 — but the playwright has been working with voice recognition software on her laptop computer.
(“The computer is not a fast learner, and my energy is low,” Earp admits.)
In the meantime, the theater bug continues to bite. As a judge for the regional AriZoni Awards, Earp has attended seven theatrical productions in the course of six weeks. And she’s planning to re-memorize the script and perform her one-woman historical show “Mrs. Wyatt Earp.”
“Even if I have to do it,” she says, “from a wheelchair.”
Chris Page, Get Out