It’s hard to believe Madison Ferris is the first actress in a wheelchair to play a leading role on Broadway — even for the 25-year-old boundary breaker herself.
“I feel like it should have happened sooner,” Ferris tells PEOPLE backstage at the Belasco Theatre in New York City, where The Glass Menagerie, the play she stars in opposite Oscar-winner Sally Field, recently opened to great reviews.
The production not only marks Ferris’ professional debut, but a unique spin on Tennessee Williams’ iconic 1945 memory play — about a man looking back on the family he abandoned in post-Depression era St. Louis.
Now in its seventh Broadway revival, director Sam Gold’s modern take on the tale puts Ferris in the role of Laura, the reclusive daughter to Field’s Amanda, described in the text as having a “hardly noticeable” defect.
Typically the role is played by a morbidly shy girl with a slight limp. Ferris has muscular dystrophy and plays Laura as a teenager who is both headstrong and resigned to the realities of her life.
“It definitely brings more to the character,” she says. “There’s higher stakes for the family of Tom leaving and there’s a literal, physical dependency on him. In this production, Laura ends up being the survivor of the family. Which is pretty empowering.”
Growing up in Schuylkill Haven, Pennsylvania, Ferris was bitten by the acting bug at a young age. “I started doing plays when I was 10 and I’ve done a play every year of my life since,” she says. “It’s what I’ve always loved to do; no matter what was going on in my life, no matter what I was studying or whether I was doing it alone or with friends.”
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Her dream could have easily been deferred when she was diagnosed at puberty with muscular dystrophy — a progressive genetic disease that causes weakness of the muscles, but with the support of her family and friends, Ferris remained determined to stay active in the arts.
“I’ve always just done what I wanted to do despite challenges,” she says. “[My diagnosis] really didn’t change a whole lot.”
There were times the physical limitations of the disease prevented her from pursuing certain activities like softball, but theater remained a steady option. After studying the craft at Muhlenberg College, she moved to New York in 2014 where her first paid professional gig was in a dance piece at the Joyce Theatre.
Like any newcomer trying to make it in the industry, there were times she worried acting professionally wouldn’t happen for her. “I think it’s risky to be an actor, period,” she admits.
She recounts the tough time she had living in the Big Apple early on, when the woman she was subletting from stopped handing Ferris’ rent payments over to the landlord. “I was evicted, I was homeless for a bit, I was let go from my job — I had a pretty rough year the first time I came to New York,” she says.
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When the opportunity to travel to Australia on a working holiday visa came up, Ferris jumped at it. “I just kind of felt like, ‘I’m going to take a break for a little while; I don’t know what I’m doing right now.’ “
Five weeks and one taped video audition later, she was heading back to N.Y.C. for a chemistry reading with Field. “I was like, ‘Oh well, could have saved a few hundred dollars, but all right — I’ll come back,’ ” she jokes.
Ferris isn’t the first actress in a wheelchair to play Broadway. Glee Project alum Ali Stroker earned that title when she appeared as an ensemble member in the 2015 revival of Spring Awakening. Although Ferris is the first actress in a wheelchair to score a lead role, the feisty and fearless star avoids the title of “role model.”
“In the long run, I just feel like an actor trying to do the part as best I can,” she explains.
But doesn’t take for granted how much she’s accomplished, or how special it feels to be achieving her dream.
“The first time I saw my name in lights, I was shaking,” she says. “I couldn’t get over it. And seeing a thousand people staring at you — like, I’m shaking just now thinking about it!
“It’s a feeling I can’t compare to anything else because I wanted to act professionally for so long,” she adds, tearing up. “So the fact that it finally came? It’s just the most gratifying, amazing feeling. I’m just so happy.”
The Glass Menagerie is now playing through July 2.