Real Drama

Debra Lombard and the kids of the ETC can tell you a thing or two about motivation

But it was fun trying. At her Tuesday night class at Cooper City High, I met Heidi Gaw, a small woman with chestnut brown hair and the kind of perfect porcelain skin you see in an Almay commercial. She is 31, and by her own reckoning has been with the company since 2002. She cannot rightly say how many shows she's done with ETC, but she recalls one with particular mirth. "We did one a couple of years ago," she says, laughing. "I was a Sponge Bob character. I really can't explain it, but it was pretty funny."

When Heidi Gaw first came to her adopted mother, Karen Gaw-McCauliffe, as an infant in 1977, she did not seem destined for showbiz. "She was a vegetable," Gaw-McCauliffe says. "When we got her home, she could do nothing. Couldn't make a sound, couldn't cry, couldn't roll over, couldn't hold a ball." The state assumed Heidi would remain in a permanently vegetative state and intended to keep her in Gaw-McCauliffe's household only until a proper facility could be found. But with a little TLC — and thrice-weekly visits from a physical therapist — Heidi went from vegetative to talking in 13 months.

She discovered a love for showbiz when, at age 3, she took to the field during her older brother's football game and declared herself a cheerleader. An outfit was made for her, and she stayed on for the season. She hasn't had many performance opportunities since then. Heidi harbored a long-running fascination with the work of Bette Midler, but her reinterpretations of Bette's oeuvre were mostly limited to living room engagements in front of Gaw-McCauliffe's video camera. Heidi has Asperger's Syndrome, a type of autism, which makes casting calls difficult. She currently works as a lunch lady.

Gaw and David: Smoke gets in your eyes.
C. Stiles
Gaw and David: Smoke gets in your eyes.


The Exceptional Theatre Company. Call 954-443-0600, or visit

In April, though, for the first time in her life, Gaw took the stage as a leading lady in front of 300 adoring fans at the David Posnack Jewish Community Center in Davie (to keep the copyright-crazy litigators at bay, she played Cindy from Boca instead of Grease's Sandy from Australia). The show was not your average musical. As per the wishes of the cast members, music from the Beach Boys and Michael Jackson sat side by side with "Summer Nights" and "You're the One That I Want." Crazily, this actually worked out pretty well.

It's easy to get cheesily misty-eyed over a project like ETC's — it's almost too easy to say, for example, that the show was brilliant and that the actors were, you know, exceptional. The actors in the company love what they do so much, they're such divas and respond so powerfully and guilelessly to an audience's applause, that one is tempted to pile so many facile encomiums on the company that they cease to mean anything. Before every show, Debra leads her actors in a chant of "I am, at this moment, all that I need to be." To be moved by 30 kids joining an affirmation like that can make you wonder if you're being sentimental.

But you're not. Sometimes, those cheesy, lovey-dovey feelings are entirely justified. When Heidi Gaw began singing "Hopelessly Devoted To You," I immediately felt terrible that, until that moment, her voice had been confined to living room performances of other people's records. Her voice was pure, tuneful, and crystal-clear, and hearing it pouring out of her was a moment of drama real as any you'll find on a stage.

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