Actor Michael Toner has appeared on the stage for decades, and that’s what he thought he was always going to do.
That confidence was shattered sometime before 1 a.m. on Tuesday, June 9, 2015.
On his way home from a rehearsal, Toner, 69, was struck by a hit and run driver in Center City Philadelphia. The force of the collision severed his left leg above the knee.
During six weeks in the hospital and another 10 days at MossRehab, Toner was racked by doubt. Would he ever walk again? More to the point—would he ever walk on stage again?
“My first thought,” he recalls, “was that I was going to be in a wheelchair the rest of my life.”
A few months before the accident, Toner had auditioned for the role of fractious tenant farmer Phil Hogan in Eugene O’Neill’s classic “A Moon for the Misbegotten,” The play was scheduled to open at the Walnut Street Theatre just six months after his accident.
At that point, he was doubtful, not just that he could recuperate and rehabilitate in time to do the play—or indeed any play ever again—but whether the theatre company would still want him.
The theatre company dispelled that notion early on. “One day, Bernard Havard (the Walnut's president and producing artistic director), visited and he said to me in his British accent (which Toner goes on to reproduce), ‘You know, Michael, you’re still under contract.’”
That was all the encouragement Toner needed.
In October - with just three months to go until opening night, Toner began relearning how to walk at MossRehab on a rigorous, twice-weekly basis.
It was an advantage, he says, “having this goal of going back on the stage and doing O’Neill again, doing this play again.”
“The time frame was short,” says MossRehab occupational therapist Drew Lerman. He remembers telling Toner, “Given how your leg looks now, it looks do-able … but it won’t be easy.”
Toner’s amputation, because it was above the knee, makes sensing how and where his foot is touching the ground more difficult.
He embraced the challenge.
“He’s probably the most positive person you’d ever want to meet,” says Lerman. After such a devastating accident, he says, there are “a lot of horrific things to think about—a lot of things to feel sorry about.” Lerman says Toner never showed any signs that he felt any of those things.
"The first incremental big moment was when I managed to walk with a cane for the first time in physical therapy, with Alba Seda-Morales, my great physical therapist," Toner says. "It was then I knew I had a good shot at getting back onstage again."
Once Toner felt ready, another question arose. Would the Walnut Street Theatre stage be ready for him?
His physical and occupational therapists at MossRehab stepped in to make sure.
In late November, Seda-Morales and Lerman visited the theatre to check out the set and backstage, and to talk through concerns about issues such as stray cables and wires, steps, and lighting. They discussed a scene that requires Toner to quickly make his way downstairs backstage, up one floor in an elevator and navigate around to the back of the theatre hall. They even needed to have Toner’s prosthesis adjusted for the boots he would be wearing onstage.
With that little extra help, Toner opened with the play as planned. Today he has a busy schedule of acting parts.
“Mike’s my first stage actor,” Lerman says, “but he’s learning to return to work, just like everybody else. He just happens to have a unique job.”
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