Working with a prosthetic leg that he’s still getting used to and without his partner in life and theater, Portland actor Tony Reilly begins the next phase of his life this week a shell of his former self.

He walks with a limp and is noticeably thinner than he was six months ago, when a Christmas week car accident on the Massachusetts Turnpike killed his wife, Susan, and severed Reilly’s left leg. Emotionally, though, Reilly is shattered.

The hollow look of grief is etched in his eyes and rooted in his soul. The death of his wife has left him half the man he once was. “I never cried for the loss of my leg,” he said, “but I cry for Susan every day.”

Reilly brazenly returns to the stage this week with “The Coma Monologues,” which he wrote while lying in a hospital bed in Worcester, Massachusetts, after waking up from a three-week induced coma following the Dec. 23 accident.

“I just have to feel like my life isn’t over and I have things to look forward to and things to do,” Reilly said in his first extensive media interview since the accident. “And I know Susan would want me to do it.”

As never before, Reilly understood the relationship between hope and fear when he woke up from the coma. Grieving the death of his wife and coming to terms with the loss of his leg, he knew his only way back was through theater.

The stage had always been at the heart of his marriage to his beloved Susan. They acted together, they ran a theater company in Portland together, and nearly every poignant moment they shared involved a play they had acted in or seen in New York, London or Portland.

If his life was worth living, Reilly knew he had to find a way back on stage without the woman who supported and encouraged him. Theater offered his best hope forward, yet he was consumed by the fear of his road ahead.

Reilly, 60, said his decision to write and perform “The Coma Monologues” is less an attempt to make sense of everything that’s happened to him and more him simply trying to get on with his life.

“I need this like I need a brain tumor,” he said of his decision to mount an original one-man show, something he’s never done during his long career in theater. “The whole thing is absolutely insane. But I have to feel like I am my old self, that I can do these things and that this is not going to limit me, this is not going to stop me.”

He draws inspiration from Sarah Bernhardt, a stage and early film actress who lost a leg to gangrene and kept working, and from Christy Brown, the Irish painter and writer portrayed by Daniel Day-Lewis in “My Left Foot.” Brown had cerebral palsy, and was able to write and paint with the toes of his left foot, the only limb that he could control.

This week, Reilly will see if he can overcome the worst obstacles that life can muster. His return is an example of the audacious bravado that has defined his creative spirit, his friends say.

“Maybe this is how an actor heals,” said Stacey Koloski, who directs Reilly in “The Coma Monologues.” “That someone who has built an incredibly rich life performing and telling stories can find the strength in the depths of what had to be the most horrible moment of his life to do something like this is inspiring to all of us.”


Reilly called Koloski soon after he woke up from his coma. She was shocked to see his name on her caller ID. He had not gotten out of bed or even received his prosthesis, but he was on the phone with Koloski asking for her help with an idea for a show he knew he had to perform. He couldn’t remember anything that happened to him, but he remembered every detail of a series of bizarre dreams.

Reilly’s original idea was to prepare “The Coma Monologues” in the event there was a last-minute cancellation in PortFringe, the alternative theater festival that opens in Portland this coming Saturday. Koloski is an organizer of the festival. The idea quickly grew into a two-night stand. He will perform at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday at St. Lawrence Arts Center in Portland. PortFringe is producing Reilly’s piece as a festival preview.

This week signals his full commitment to return to theater. On Tuesday, he presents an old show of his, “Ulysses for Beginners,” a tribute to the Irish writer James Joyce, at the Maine Irish Heritage Center. He’s also agreed to direct two of his closest friends, Paul Haley and David Butler, in a production of “Rounding Third” at Deertrees Theatre in Harrison in August. And most significantly, he has accepted an offer from Portland Stage Company executive and artistic director Anita Stewart to act in “Dancing at Lughnasa.”

Stewart scheduled the show as a tribute to Susan Reilly, and asked Tony if he would like to participate. It opens the 2015-16 season at Portland Stage in September. Reilly will play the role of Michael, the narrator.

He and Susan saw the show in New York, and it was one of the first plays they produced after they moved to Maine and began the American Irish Repertory Ensemble, or AIRE.

Reilly describes “Dancing at Lughnasa” as “one of the top five experiences of our life. We walked out of the theater in New York City and were just amazed. I hope I can do it justice. It’s the most amazingly beautiful show. When I talked to Anita, I thought, ‘I don’t care what I have to do to do it, I have to do it.’ So I said yes.”


In its decade-plus, AIRE has become a key player in the Portland theater scene, and the Reillys emerged as a bonding agent among Portland theater troupes. Portland’s theater community is famously rich and diverse, but also fractured by rivalries. The Reillys, and in particular Susan, who was outgoing and inclusive, helped bridge some of the factions.

If for no other reason than to help preserve his wife’s legacy, Reilly said it was important for him to get back onstage as soon as possible to demonstrate that AIRE is still active and that the efforts of the past decade were not in vain. “We were the intersection,” he said. “People who didn’t talk to each other talked to the Reillys. It’s such an awesome task for me to try to keep that up and keep that going. That is why I want to be strong.”

Reilly returned to his South Portland home May 13. He spent five weeks in a Massachusetts hospital before transferring to a rehab hospital in New Jersey, near his family home. The Reillys were en route to New Jersey for the Christmas holiday when the accident happened.

Coming home to Maine has been a mixed blessing, he said. Driving by the accident site was far more emotional than he expected. He flinched each time a driver passed. And while he knew it would be hard to return to an empty house, he had no idea how hard. “I realize she is not here, and I realize she is not coming back,” he said softly. “But I did not anticipate how truly painful it would be. I feel like I have levels of pain, where some things just make me cry and some things just destroy me.”

Dinnertime and bedtime are especially hard.

Reilly was the cook in the family while Susan cleaned. Dinner now is an exercise in speed eating. “It’s just so depressing, I shovel food in my mouth,” he said. But he keeps hearing her voice, reminding him to “put something green on the menu.”

He’s followed the advice of those who have suffered similar tragedies, and left his wife’s belongings untouched. He’s been in her home office, but had to leave quickly. He has smelled the pajamas that she left on the back of their bedroom door, but not moved them.

Going to bed and waking up challenge him. First, there’s the issue of his prosthesis and his half-leg, which he calls “Mr. Stumpy.” Both require daily care, and it’s hard to do it alone. He uses a walker or hops into the bathroom to wash, and feels vulnerable.

And then there’s the emptiness of the house.

“I’ve never been a scared or paranoid person, but I lie in bed and I feel sometimes …” His voice trails off. “These old houses, they creak and they make noises. All of a sudden, those noises become a lot scarier. You just can’t jump up and respond to it.”


Coming home has helped in other ways. His friends have been amazing, he said. One installed an air-conditioner and helped him buy a car. Another mows his lawn. People have offered to do his laundry, take him grocery shopping. He jokes that if he were Amish, they would have built him a barn by now.

A week ago, Reilly hosted a memorial for his wife at the Maine Irish Heritage Center. He expected 150 people. Four-hundred showed up.

This week, he returns to the stage.

“The Coma Monologues” opens with: “My name is Tony Reilly, and I am an actor here in Portland.”

And then he tells his story.

He was driving their Toyota sedan west on the Massachusetts Turnpike, and stalled in midday holiday traffic waiting to exit onto Interstate 84 south through Connecticut. The accident involved two tractor-trailers and another car. One of the trucks plowed into the Reillys’ sedan. (The accident remains under investigation, and Reilly has hired a lawyer and plans to pursue legal action).

He remembers nothing about the accident itself. His last memory from that day is a phone call he received from a friend in New York, just as he and Susan were preparing to leave their South Portland home.

Reilly told his friend they were headed to New York, and she warned him to be careful, he said, “because the roads are treacherous. I thought, ‘That’s crazy.’ It was a sunny day. It was warm. I don’t know why she said that. But that was the only thing I remember until three weeks later.”

His car crushed by a truck, Reilly’s left leg was severed on the scene. He was conscious initially and was told he asked someone if he lost his leg. “Yup,” the stranger told him. “It was a field amputation.”

If not for the quick response of a doctor in a nearby car and a state trooper equipped with a tourniquet, Reilly was told he would have bled out on the highway.

He suffered facial injuries, a dozen broken ribs and a broken clavicle. Both lungs collapsed. He was covered in diesel fuel from the truck, and gravel from the side of the road was embedded throughout his body.

He underwent multiple surgeries to save his right leg, which was shattered and nearly severed. Surgeons inserted a rod from his ankle to his knee, and harvested muscle from his groin to help “fill a hole in the bottom of my leg near the ankle.”

He learned all of this, as well as the news of the death of his wife, in the days after doctors brought him out of his coma. He was heavily sedated, and it took time for him to comprehend the impact of everything that happened. That process continues. “I don’t feel like I am quite in the real world yet,” he said.

Koloski finds it fascinating that Reilly can remember so many of his dreams. One involves a Disney cruise and a production of “A Little Night Music.” In another, he is in the Australian backwoods with the Bee Gees at Christmas, except he sees them as “Duck Dynasty” rednecks. That one also involves George Harrison. And then there’s the dream about the Toyota factory, in which Reilly insists the only thing wrong with his car is missing floor mats.


Interspersed throughout the dreams are real-life situations that Reilly was facing. He has all the emergency-room and surgical transcripts, and he and Koloski use those to help propel the story and to show what doctors were doing while he was dreaming. They do not make any conclusions about correlations between real-world events and Reilly’s dreams, and leave those assumptions to those who see the piece.

But Koloski believes they’re related.

“When I listen to his story, I can’t help but wonder what was filtering through,” she said. “Are they related? I think what’s so interesting about it, and the humanity of it, is this idea that he can’t remember anything about the accident, but he can remember every detail of these dreams. I really believe that everything that is happening in his dreams are based on things that were going on in the real world.”

Reilly describes “The Coma Monologues” as a performance more than a play. He will stand and tell his story, in the tradition of Spalding Gray. There’s no set, and at the time of this interview he had given no thought to what he will wear. He will stand on stage and address the audience. He gave no consideration to telling the story while seated. He jokes: “That’s what I got this leg for. What good is it if I can’t walk around?”

For the first time, Reilly will be alone on stage.

He’s never performed a one-man show, and whenever he’s acted in any play over their 20 years of marriage, Susan was always with him, if not on stage acting alongside, then backstage supporting him or out front collecting tickets. Or at home sending good wishes.

She will be with him again Wednesday, somehow, someway. Reilly knows that, and he will take comfort in her presence.

But that won’t stop him from feeling scared.

Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: pphbkeyes

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