Before Rob McQuay took the stage on opening night for "Romeo and Juliet" at Prince George's Community College, he was more nervous than he was at any time since he acted in high school.
It wasn't just that Mr. McQuay, a veteran of several area productions, had never played Shakespeare before. Nor was it that his character -- Escalus, Prince of Verona -- had the play's opening monologue.
Rather, his nervousness stemmed from the fact that last Thursday's performance was the first time he had performed on stage since a wave snapped his neck in the surf off Ocean City last August, leaving him a paraplegic.
"It's almost as if I have a different body," says Mr. McQuay, who will reprise the role tonight, tomorrow and Saturday nights as part of the Shakespeare Project at PGCC's Hallam Theatre. "I wasn't sure how it was going to respond. With the [wheel] chair, it's not the same thing as being in control of your body, walking."
The 28-year-old actor -- who, like the other members of the part-student, part-community cast, is not being paid -- says the play has "been a good thing for me to do; I've foundit to be very therapeutic.
"Emotionally, there's been a real good sense of some sort of achievement," he says, sitting in the living room of his home in Catonsville, where he lives with his actress wife Chan and children Danny, 3, and Mary Margaret, 8 months. "Physically, it's been a little scary at times. After my first [stage] exit opening night, something happened and I almost fell forward out of my chair."
At first, when he thought about getting back on stage, Mr. McQuay says he figured he would only play parts that were "wheelchair characters." But when the Shakespeare Project's artistic director Lawrence Redmond offered him the role of Escalus, he accepted.
When he was introduced to the rest of the cast at his first rehearsal, he says, "everybody started applauding. . . . That was uncomfortable to me."
Part of his discomfort comes from the fact that he doesn't feel he has exhibited any particular courage in the aftermath of the accident that has left him paralyzed from the abdomen down.
"Other people [feel that way]," he allows. "But to me, I do what I have to." His eyes move to the legs that no longer can support his body. "These are my limitations. Life goes on."
Still, he admits it goes on in a different way.
"I guess the biggest adjustment is not being able to be completely in control," he says after a thoughtful sigh. "Even as independent as I am, and will become, I've got to have someone help me get dressed before a show.
"I can do things, but there are times I have to wait. I've learned a good deal more patience."
Indeed, it is only when he describes the amount of red tape necessary to gain a restricted license that would qualify him for state aid to get his van equipped with hand controls, that frustration creeps into his voice. "I got out of the hospital Nov. 8," he says, "and I still don't have my own transportation."
Mrs. McQuay says her husband has "been easy [to deal with] compared to what I feared initially. He's never plunged into a despair or a depression. People kept saying, 'He'll crash, he'll just plummet.' One of the things that's been a help is we're honest with each other. We'll yell at each other for two minutes, then it's over."
"I never really went through 'Why me?' " Mr. McQuay says, adding that although he felt some self-pity "in the beginning, I think I'm getting over that."
Some memories are too vivid to ever get over. The large, cresting wave looming overhead as he stood in chest-deep water off 13th Street. Lying helpless in the water, trying to swim and not being able to. Looking up at Mrs. McQuay on the beach and saying, "I'm alive."
He spent three weeks at the University of Maryland's Shock Trauma Center and nearly three months at Washington's National Rehabilitation Hospital, during which time his daughter was born. The week after his return home, the local theater community held a benefit for him at Burn Brae Dinner Theatre, raising money to help make his home handicapped-accessible.
At home, Mr. McQuay rented "Born on the Fourth July," Oliver Stone's movie adaptation of paralyzed Vietnam veteran Ron Kovic's bitter memoir, because he wanted to see how it related to his own experience. The scene where Kovic, played by Tom Cruise, came home and was greeted by neighbors telling him how good he looked was so real that Mr. McQuay rewound and replayed it. "It's like 'What do you expect me to look like?' " he says. "You're still the same person, you just can't make your legs move."
An administrator at the National Endowment for the Arts read about his situation and asked him to apply for a job; he starts work there Monday as a roving program specialist. It will be the first non-acting job he has had in more than five years, a career move he says he was considering even before his accident.