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An encore performance

It all started when Veronica Matricardi spun in her wheelchair in the middle of the stage and yelled, "I'm back, I'm back!"

It was June and she had just seen a show at the Colonial Players theater house in Annapolis. Other audience members were filing out, but not Matricardi. She longed to experience the joy of being onstage again.

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She didn't have to wait long. Joe Thompson, director of Colonial Players' Cabaret for Kids, was there and invited Matricardi to join the cast.

"My dream has been to become an actor again," said Matricardi, who in 1979 as a teen-ager performed in a Colonial Players production of Rumpelstiltskin before suffering a stroke the next year.

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It has been a long recovery process for the Arnold resident, who realized her dream last weekend by appearing in Cabaret for Kids, a program in which adults and children perform 34 songs, poems and skits. It celebrates childhood, imagination and dreams.

"She was beaming, she was just glowing," Thompson said of Matricardi's reaction after last weekend's show. The revue runs through tomorrow night.

Matricardi is 40, but most people think she is in her 20s, said Irene Norton, her mother and primary caregiver.

Born with a heart disease known as Transposition of the Great Arteries, or TGA, Matricardi was originally given three months to live.

She defied the odds with what her mother describes as her fighting spirit, but she faced one hospitalization after another as the years passed. With a limited amount of oxygen flowing to her brain, Matricardi suffered from reduced mental, psychological and physical development.

Her mother persisted despite the negative prognoses given by many doctors and specialists along the way.

Then tragedy struck in 1980.

During a surgical procedure, Matricardi suffered a massive stroke on both sides of her brain. She went into a coma and was put on life support. Doctors told her family she would be a "vegetable."

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At 18, Matricardi began a long process of relearning everything, from talking to eating to embroidery.

"It's been 23 years of growth," Norton said.

Aided by a three-person team made up of her mother, younger sister Lisa, and her mother's then-husband Charles Sanders, Matricardi began to develop all over again.

"Now look at our 'vegetable,'" Norton said, gesturing to her smiling daughter in their family room.

Matricardi enjoys beef fondue and lobster; she visits museums and old towns; she reads novels with her mother and is teaching herself how to play the piano. She is the family expert on computer correspondence, history and sauce-making (think barbecue and cocktail).

And now she is an actress. Thompson, who had seen Matricardi and her mother at past Colonial Players events, knew he could carve a place for her in his show.

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"One of the things I've always tried to do with Cabaret is to involve people who normally aren't involved," Thompson said. "So when I saw Veronica, I thought, 'Well there's someone who's been around the theater a long time, but obviously doesn't have a whole lot of chances to be onstage.' "

In Cabaret for Kids, Matricardi doesn't play a "wheelchair character." Rather, she is just another character in the show and happens to be in a wheelchair.

Norton and Thompson said performing arts professionals typically don't take advantage of opportunities to incorporate the disabled, unless a part specifically calls for a handicapped character.

"I think there's a mindset that both the actors and the directors have," Thompson said. "But there's absolutely no reason why a lot of these parts couldn't be a person in a wheelchair, or a blind person."

But Thompson found a great venue to incorporate Matricardi, her mother said. Thompson, who wrote the play's acts, gave Matricardi a role in 13 of them.

He said the challenge was in the choreography, especially because Matricardi was brought on board after the audition process and after some of the pieces had been choreographed.

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Also, because they're working in a theater-in-the-round, the wheelchair presents a challenge not to block anyone's view for too long, he said.

But Matricardi's presence onstage outweighs the difficulties. Acting makes her feel "wonderful."

She always says, "I'm having so much fun!" her mother said. And Thompson raves about "her excitement, her enthusiasm to get back onstage, and how much work she puts into it."

Matricardi always waits after rehearsal to ask Thompson, "How'd I do?"

At home, she has practiced extensively with her mother and Heather Millar, a friend who lives with them.

"It was a little daunting in the beginning," said Norton, who makes every effort to motivate her daughter's mind at home.

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She sets up visual stimuli around the house and frequently welcomes visitors. Hosting midshipmen over the years has been a positive experience for the family, Norton said. Family members said Matricardi developed friendships with each one, and the mids became like brothers to her, never dwelling on her disability.

Matricardi, who is blind in the left side of each eye and is supposed to be connected to an oxygen tank 24 hours a day (but generally only uses it 16 hours a day), has surprised her doctors.

Given her medical situation, they are mystified by how her body has adapted to her medical condition, Norton said.

As Norton sees it, her daughter was "reborn" starting in 1980, after the stroke. She said Matricardi ranges from ages 13 to 40 in her emotional, psychological and physical behavior.

But regardless of age, Matricardi is delighting children with her performances in Cabaret for Kids. Saturday afternoon's showing had a child sitting in a wheelchair in the audience whose eyes lit up at the sight of Matricardi, observers said.

Thompson couldn't hide his excitement about the rush of opening night. Everyone's spirits sag during the rehearsal-intensive week before the show opens, and Matricardi thought about quitting. But she stuck with it.

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Matricardi needs help getting onstage, and must use her oxygen tank in between scenes, but her fellow thespians aren't put off by her disability. For this her mother is thankful.

"We're not somber people," Norton said. "This is about life. We have this 'can't-be' person who's still here."


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