It's not easy to appear menacing in a wheelchair, but David Bernstein is pulling it off as the King of Thebes in the Academy Theatre production of Antigone. In the Greek tragedy, Creon ascends to the throne after his brothers-in-law, the sons of Oedipus, kill each other while battling for the rights to their father's kingdom. Because one of the brothers, Polynices, had brought with him an invading army to take over Thebes, Creon declares that he doesn't deserve a burial. Anyone who tries to give Polynices last rites, he decrees, will be put to death.
Antigone being a tragedy, someone ends up defying the king, who, in this case, knows exactly how to use that wheelchair of his. "I actually cross-examine the guard who first tells me that someone has buried the body," Bernstein says. "I back him all the way across the stage, until he backs into the wall." As Creon, the actor is dressed in black pants and black leather, and he ends the interrogation by pinning the guard between the wall and his black electric wheelchair. Bernstein's appearance is part of an apocalyptic setting designed by director Jerry Campbell.
"I wanted to give [the play] a contemporary-futuristic treatment so that the political and moral implications of the play would be clear rather than distant," explains Campbell. "So there was no reason not to cast a person in a wheelchair, and David was definitely the best person to audition for the part."
Considering that the most effective actors draw from life experiences, he was the best person for a variety of reasons. Bernstein has hypereosinophilic syndrome, a rare condition in which one type of white blood cell proliferates and causes various medical problems -- in Bernstein's case the loss of sensation in his arms and legs. When he was diagnosed, in 1984, most HS sufferers lived no more than three years after the onset of the illness. As part of an experimental treatment program, though, Bernstein was given alpha interferon, which stopped the disease from progressing. "It's a good thing that I discovered it when I did," he says, "or I might not be here now."
If it weren't for the disease, he might not be living in South Florida. When he was diagnosed, Bernstein had just graduated from law school. Although he'd also studied theater as an undergraduate and his first love was acting, he took a district attorney's job in New York City for the health insurance. Over the next ten years, he took extended leaves of absence when he wasn't feeling well but kept returning to work in order to hold on to his benefits. Then in 1994, after he'd heard that a coworker was leaving the department to spend time with her kids, he had an epiphany in the form of a wrenching stomach pain. "It was accompanied by a little voice that said, 'She's leaving; you should be leaving,'" he recalls.
That very day he called the Florida Atlantic University theater department for information about its graduate program in directing and made plans to move to his parents' house in Boca Raton, which he did later that year.
Bernstein, who can walk with crutches but prefers the stability of a wheelchair, has since gotten married and finished his course work. Medicare coverage kicked in after two years of unemployment, and he gets by on disability payments and occasional theater work. A children's musical he wrote will be produced by the Actors' Playhouse in Coral Gables early next year, and the Public Theatre in Fort Lauderdale will premiere his comedy Lucid Moments in March.
As for stage roles, he says, "All I can do is keep putting myself out there and hope that I will find directors who have the vision to be able to get beyond the wheelchair and use me. I don't plan to spend my life in a wheelchair. I don't know if I will get well, but I certainly hope to."