“Private Practice” — The disability episode; disabled actor added as regular cast member

michael patrick thornton

By BA Haller
© Media dis&dat, Nov. 7, 2009

I am not usually a “Private Practice” (ABC, Thursdays, 10 p.m. EST) viewer, but the promo for the Nov. 5 episode, “Slip, Slidin’ Away,” that included several little people actors, caught my attention, as well as the indication the episode would be about genetic engineering. I wasn’t disappointed; it was chock-full of disability storylines.

And even more significantly, the show has added a disabled actor as a regular cast member. Michael Patrick Thornton (pictured) joined the cast a genetics researcher, Dr. Gabriel Fife, who works with ob-gyn Dr. Naomi Bennett (played by Audra McDonald). The two butted heads over the patients who are little people. The LP couple wanted to implant an embryo that would be guaranteed to be a little person. But things got complicated when Dr. Bennett discovers the LP embryos have a genetic defect that almost certainly guarantees the child will develop cancer as a young adult.

The storyline about implanting the embryo was more nuanced than I usually expect from a TV show. The characters’ discussions covered several aspects of this complex topic. And in the world of TV drama, the friction between Drs. Fife and Bennett means they may end up in a romantic relationship at some point. (Unlike real life, where people who dislike each other usually continue to dislike each other.)

Michael Patrick Thornton, co-founder of The Gift Theatre Company, comes from the theater world and I couldn’t find his specific entry in the Internet Movie Database. Here’s his bio from 3Arts in Chicago, where he was a 2009 Theater Award Recipient (the Web site has a short video from Thornton where he talks some about being a disabled actor):

Artistic director/co-founder of The Gift Theatre Company, Thornton recently directed John Conroy’s My Kind of Town for Steppenwolf’s First Look Festival as well as Of Mice and Men at Steppenwolf. In addition to his several directing credits with The Gift he has directed We’ve Got Our Own Problems, Natural Gas, and Best of Second City Directors’ Showcase at Second City, Picasso At The Lapin Agile (Noble Fool), Julius Caesar (Crew Of Patches), among others. Thornton was also an assistant director on Steppenwolf’s Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning August: Osage County. A Jeff Award-winning actor, Thornton most recently appeared in Natural Gas, The Ruby Sunrise, The Last Days of Judas Iscariot (The Gift), and Steppenwolf’s The Elephant Man. He is a graduate of The School at Steppenwolf, The Conservatory Program and Directing Program at Second City, and is finishing the iO Improv Program. He also teaches at Second City and The School at Steppenwolf. As a playwright, Thornton’s play, The Princess and the Bear, was published in excerpt by Third Coast Press and is being workshopped for production through a grant from The Second City Foundation. He has received numerous awards including Chicago Finalist: National Shakespeare Contest (Mitzi-Newhouse Theatre at Lincoln Center, New York), Northlight’s Jack Springer Award for Outstanding Performance, The 2008 Tim Meier & Helen Coburn Meier Foundation Achievement Award, The Second City Foundation’s 2009 Jim Zulevic Chicago Arts Award, and The Joseph Jefferson Award for Solo Performance. This fall, Thornton can be seen playing Dr. Gabriel Fife on ABC’s Private Practice.

The other two storylines on “Private Practice” dealt with end-stage cancer and electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) treatments for depression.

The ECT storyline was the most problematic. The patient was seemingly miraculously cured of her clinical depression from one session of ECT. She had been warned about memory loss from the treatment and it appears at first that she may have some significant memory loss from the ECT, which tricked me into thinking they were really going to touch on some of the side effects of ECT. No such luck. The patient was faking the memory loss.

The cancer storyline involved ob-gyn surgeon Dr. Addison Montgomery (played by Kate Walsh) comforting her patient who had end-stage ovarian cancer. This storyline was a bit better because it discussed the need of doctors, especially surgeons, to continually try treatments for dying patients, even when a patient has terminal cancer and all treatments have been exhausted. The patient talked about how she had made peace with the fact that the end was near and selected to go to a hospice for her final days. Dr. Montgomery was the one who had difficulty accepting that she could do nothing more as a doctor to help the patient, so she tried to help the patient as friend by taking care of the patient’s beloved cat. That patient helped Dr. Montgomery recognize that sometimes a doctor can give the most help without practicing medicine.

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