Beach Haven — There was some drama at Surflight Theatre late last week. Serious drama.
An actor was onstage rehearsing for “Matilda,” the theater’s current mainstage offering. He’s a healthy, active man who walks everywhere, doesn’t smoke, exercises, and recently lost approximately 50 pounds.
He was working with the musical’s child actors and a couple of other adults. While singing he suddenly quietly sank to his knees and then collapsed on the floor.
The theater’s staff quickly assessed that he was not breathing and they couldn’t find a pulse. An understudy actress who is also a Show Place singing server commenced performing CPR with the assistance of a college-age assistant stage manager.
The children were whisked away from the building by their wrangler while an actress called 911 and an actor ran outside to notify a summer policewoman who had been stationed in front of the theater for traffic control. She immediately radioed dispatch and ran into the theater along with her partner. Other police arrived within minutes.
The biggest heroes of the day, though, turned out to be members of the Beach Haven Beach Patrol from Centre Street who came running down the street at top speed carrying a defibrillator and oxygen tanks.
“It was very ‘Baywatch,”’ said Surflight’s Associate Artistic Director/Production Manager/Casting Director Gail Anderson.
The lifeguards employed the defibrillator while members of the Surflight company watched and prayed aloud. The second defib shock did the trick, and the actor regained consciousness and started to breathe. He actually tried to get to his feet.
The actor was carried on a stretcher to a Beach Haven First Aid Squad ambulance and taken to Southern Ocean Medical Center in Manahawkin. After a couple of days it was determined he hadn’t suffered a heart attack, but something had obviously been very wrong. So he was transferred to Deborah Heart and Lung Center in Browns Mills where intensive testing showed he needed bypass surgery – a quintuple bypass at that.
The quintuple turned into a sextuple! But the actor is expected to make a full recovery. There was no damage to the heart muscle or brain, attributed to the immediate CPR and the quick arrival of emergency responders.
The adventure at Surflight wasn’t over. “Matilda” was going to open in just four days and the actor had been preparing to play the second largest role in the musical.
Well, in the finest tradition of theater, the show went on.
Anderson talked to the actor in the hospital and let him know she was going to have to replace him. With his blessing, she launched a nationwide search for actors who had performed the role before. The acting community came together and after some extensive networking provided the name and contact information for Chris Blem. He had played the role before at Virginia Stage and happened to be just finishing up at a theater camp where he had been teaching.
Blem arrived at Surflight on Saturday, worked with the show’s director and choreographer on Saturday night, worked with the company on Sunday, rehearsed with the entire cast on Monday and Tuesday and opened the show on Tuesday evening, earning warm applause.
— Rick Mellerup