On Oct. 4, 2002, dancer-actress Lyena Strelkoff fell from a tree, breaking her back, rendering her a paraplegic. Moving her wheelchair freely about the small Ruskin Group Theater stage, the comely, spirited Strelkoff details every aspect of the accident that robbed her of her plans and ambitions, followed by her straight-ahead battle during the ensuing two years to have a fulfilling life.

On Oct. 4, 2002, dancer-actress Lyena Strelkoff fell from a tree, breaking her back, rendering her a para-plegic. Moving her wheelchair freely about the small Ruskin Group Theater stage, the comely, spirited Strelkoff details every aspect of the accident that robbed her of her plans and ambitions, followed by her straight-ahead battle during the ensuing two years to have a fulfilling life. Collaborating with Strelkoff is helmer Paul Linke, who has previously mounted his own award-winning solo bio, “Time Flies When You’re Alive,” as well as guiding similar revelatory sojourns for the likes of Shelly Berman, Sammy Shore and Charles Nelson Reilly.

Linke has done an admirable job of keeping Strelkoff zeroed in on every moment of her chronicle, never al-lowing the audience to escape her penetrating focus. Though her narrative is imbued with an understated warmth and humor, there are no irrelevant reminiscences or anecdotes. Almost as if she were giving a summation to a jury, the wheelchair-using thesp is determined to be heard and understood.

Through most of her discourse, Strelkoff eschews dramatics and emotion, beginning with a straightforward, highly detailed chronicle of that fateful day, which began in bed with her boyfriend Neal, proclaiming, “I had the best orgasm of my life.” Deciding to take those good feelings out to a park in Malibu, the athletic thesp climbed a tree simply “because it was there.”

In a remarkable display of recall, Strelkoff details every minute aspect of her climb and her encounter with a deceptively sturdy-looking tree limb that proved literally to be her downfall, propelling her 20 feet into permanent incapacitation from the pelvis down. It is the realization that she will never be able to duplicate the sexual fulfillment she once enjoyed that thrusts Strelkoff through her narrator’s facade into a brief but powerful primal scream of sorrow and regret for what she has lost.

As Strelkoff subsequently guides the audience through her months of hospitalization, followed by taxing rehab and the monumentally difficult everyday task of moving her injured body and wheelchair through an ambulatory world, she exhibits a remarkable ability to underscore the highs and lows of her journey as if discovering the facts of her life anew. It is awe-inspiring to listen to her describe such everyday tasks as using a public restroom from the point of view of someone who must approach such things as if setting out to wage battle.

The highlight of the production is Strelkoff’s disarmingly frank but fascinating description of her journey of love with Dean, who has been at her side from the moment she fell from the tree, sharing her accomplishments as well as many embarrassments. As a compelling analogy to sum up her two-year journey to her current life of creative, physical and emotional fulfillment, she describes the evolution of a caterpillar that literally must dissolve into liquid within its cocoon (“caterpillar soup”) before it can emerge as a butterfly.

There is more lecture than drama to this chronicle of Strelkoff’s journey, but it never ceases to be compelling. Aiding her discourse greatly are Kathie O’Donohue’s mood-enhancing lighting and Suzanne Teng’s music.

Caterpillar Soup

Ruskin Group Theater Company, Santa Monica; 60 seats; $20 top

Production

A Ruskin Group Theater Company presentation of a play in one act, written and performed by Lyena Strelkoff. Directed by Paul Linke.

Creative

Lights, Kathie O'Donohue; music, Suzanne Teng; sound, John Given. Opened Nov. 5, 2004; reviewed Dec. 4. Runs through Dec. 18. Running time: 1 HOUR, 30 MIN.
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