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Joe Henderson: For Dennis Duggan, the shows must go on

Dennis Duggan (left) as Lennie and Sam Petricone as George in the Stage West production of “Of Mice and Men.” [Photo courtesy of Carol Ballard]
Dennis Duggan (left) as Lennie and Sam Petricone as George in the Stage West production of “Of Mice and Men.” [Photo courtesy of Carol Ballard]
Published Apr. 17, 2019

The dramatic final scene of John Steinbeck's classic novella Of Mice And Men was unfolding at Stage West Playhouse in Spring Hill recently when there was a twist to the plot.

Well-known Tampa actor Dennis Duggan was playing the part of Lennie, described by Steinbeck as "a large, strong, lumbering, simple-minded man who is usually unaware of his actions and surroundings."

Duggan was on his knees, his back turned to Sam Petricone, who was playing the part of George. BAM! George shoots Lennie in the back of the head. Duggan, unlike his character, usually is acutely aware of his actions and surroundings. Blocking is something performers take seriously.

This time though, Duggan was a bit too close to the edge of the stage. He takes up the story here.

"I'm kneeling as George is describing heaven to Lennie," he said. "I heard the shot, closed my eyes, threw my head back, then put my arms out to feel the stage as I fell forward. Except I'm going, 'Where's the stage?'

"Then I felt my ribs hit the edge of the stage, and it knocked the wind out of me."

That wasn't all. Duggan, quite unscripted, fell about 3 ½ feet off the stage, nearly into the front row of the audience.

"It was like, boom! I hit on my back," he said. "An older gentleman in the front row goes, 'Now, that's impressive.'"

It was also painful. Duggan suffered a severely sprained right ankle in the fall. But you know the code actors live by. The show must go on, so he limped back stage and came out for the curtain call — and then went to a local hospital.

"I took off my boot after that and just watched my leg swelling up," he said. "I actually thought it was broken."

Fortunately, it wasn't.

"It was surreal to say the least," Petricone said. "I didn't know what to do. The first thing his son said was, 'He's having a heart attack. Call 911.' It wasn't that bad, but his leg was swelling like crazy.

"It was nuts. Everybody in the audience thought it was part of the show. Somebody was asking if we had a mattress down there."

Duggan has been a fixture in local theater for years, taking on challenging roles like Col. Nathan as Jessup in A Few Good Men and Juror #3 in 12 Angry Men.

He is a former Tampa police officer who was bitten by the stage bug back in high school in the mid-1970s when he signed up for a musical while recovering from a football injury.

He also lost a leg when his motorcycle was struck while providing security at the MacDill Air Fest. He doesn't let that slow him down, and he surely wasn't going to let this bum ankle stop him either. There were four more shows to do the following weekend after the injury.

"He was in tremendous pain for those shows," Petricone said.

Duggan doesn't deny that.

"That's some of the hardest work I've ever done," he said. "But we had four sold-out shows and we had to finish."

The cast adjusted the blocking to minimize the amount of movement Duggan had to make and he took it from there.

"Sometimes I teach young actors and I emphasize commitment and perseverance," he said. "I guess I needed that too."

He already has his eye on a couple of parts in other plays, including a Stageworks reprise next year of 12 Angry Men.

It's standard for actors to tell each other to "break a leg" before each performance. It's a superstition that when you wish for something in live theatre, the opposite often happens. This time, it was a little too close to reality.

"I'll still tell them to break a leg," Duggan said. "But now I'll add, not really."