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Arts and Culture

Confronting Unbearable Grief: Maine Actor Tony Reilly Stages 'The Coma Monologues'

Tom Porter
Actor Tony Reilly gets ready for his one-man show, "The Coma Monologues."

PORTLAND, Maine - Maine actor Tony Reilly returns to the stage this week, six months after being severely injured in a car accident that claimed the life of his wife and long-time colleague, Susan. Reilly is appearing in two sold-out performances in Portland on Wednesday and Thursday.

"The Coma Monologues" is a one-man show inspired by the vivid dreams Reilly had during the three weeks he spent in a coma following the accident.  And he hopes his return to the stage will help put him on the road to emotional recovery.

Life's a struggle for Tony Reilly at the moment. He returned to his South Portland home just a few weeks ago, after undergoing months of treatment and rehab. As well as coping with the grief of losing his wife, Reilly is also learning to get around with a prosthetic leg and another leg which was badly damaged.

Reilly has said he needs to mount a one-man show this week like he needs a "brain tumor." So why is he doing it? "Well, because I'm an actor," he laughs "I'm an actor and I'm Irish and I'm a storyteller."

But as he tells this story, Reilly says he won't allow himself to reflect too much on the loss of his wife, Susan. That would be too upsetting, he says. "I could sit here and cry all day long," he says, "and it takes everything I can to just not do that, and to get on with my life and get on with people, 'cause Susan would have wanted me to do that. She wouldn't have wanted me to just sit here and cry. But, oh God, it's not easy being in this house."

The Coma Monologues is based on the powerful dreams that Reilly had during the three weeks he was in a medically-induced coma following the Dec. 23 crash on the Massachusetts Turnpike.

"And when I came out of the coma, I just had these dreams in my head, and they were just huge, they were mammoth.  They just went on and on and on. And the thing was, I could remember them in detail, a ridiculous amount of detail that you just don't have when you have dreams."

One dream, for example, is set in a magical musical Disney cruise; another features a life-like diorama of a Native American village. "And the detail was incredible:  They had Indian maids and braves and Indian chiefs. And he took out of his pocket some hallucinogen - some mushrooms - and he gave one to Susan and he gave one to me. And I put one in my pocket."

In some of the dreams, he calls for his wife, Susan, and often he sees her. But much of the time, she's a peripheral figure, off to the side and somehow unreachable. Reilly says he's not tried to analyze his dreams - he'll let the audience try and do that - but he has been able to make sense of some of the images over time.

"Every now and then I'll go, 'Oh, yes. That's what that was.'  'Oh my goodness, that's why there was food on the wall, because I was on a food drip.' And, 'That's why I was in the Toyota factory,' because I'm sure I knew that the car was in really bad condition after the accident," he says. "So there's all these little things that slowly come, and I'm hoping that the audience will bring a lot to it."

Credit Tom Porter / MPBN
Stacey Koloski, the director of The Coma Monologues.

"Everything that he put into writing or is said aloud seems in my mind to relate to something that was actually happening in the world around him at that time," says Stacey Koloski, director of The Coma Monologues. "From things in the hospital room, things people were saying, things he overheard, things that were physically happening to him, that have turned into a narrative piece."

"What kind of person is he as a human being and as an actor, and the way that he's dealt with what's happened to him? How do you interpret all that?" I ask her.

"I think he's a giant," she says. "I think Tony's a magnificent human being and has a strength of spirit that certainly has existed before all of this happened, but has been tested and he's proven that he is a fighter."

Hear more from Tony Reilly.

As for Reilly himself, he says he regards The Coma Monologues as a difficult, but essential, part of his own personal healing process. "I have to feel that my life isn't over, that my career isn't over, that I can still do things, that I can do all the things that I want to do. So that's why these things are important. It's like the first step to doing more, to doing more."

Both performances this week of The Coma Monologues, by Tony Reilly, are sold out.

Hear Tony Reilly read an excerpt from his one-man show, "The Coma Monologues."