The Old Dominion University Theatre was electric this week as nearly two dozen actresses rehearsed lines for the upcoming sketch comedy show "Panties in a Twist 2."
For most of the cast - the 20- and 30-somethings with their fishnet stockings and wedge boots - Saturday's performance at The NorVa could offer the kind of big break that changes lives forever.
But cast member Rona Hyman, 46, dressed in faded denim and a backward ball cap, has made her own break: one that helped her escape depression and confusion and realize a lifelong passion.
Produced by The Pushers, a local comedy and improv troupe, "Panties" was promoted last year as Hampton Roads' first all-female sketch comedy show. Two members of the group, Alba Woolard and Tiffany Chilcott, serve as directors. Women are in charge, from promotion to curtain.
Hyman's role in this show last year cemented her status as an up-and-coming actress. Since then, she has performed in Regent University films and played supporting roles on shows on the Investigation Discovery network. The work doesn't pay enough to support her, but it's enough to validate the tough decision she made nearly eight years ago, when her life seemed in complete turmoil.
In 2004, Hyman was an out-of-work teacher in South Florida, coming to grips with a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis. The thought of living with the disease sent her into a depression.
"I think people go through a midlife transition in their 40s, where their soul is crying out to be heard," she said. "And I thought, 'If I was to die, what would I regret not doing?' "
For Hyman, it was acting.
She moved to Hampton Roads on a friend's suggestion and decided to pursue acting. It was a long shot, but she was tired of being afraid. And she was not going to let her disease, or her 240-pound physique, stop her.
"I felt like I had all these things against me, with me being overweight and having MS," she said. "But you know what? I was like, 'I don't care. I don't care what anyone thinks. I'm doing this.' "
Hyman wasn't unfamiliar with the stage. She acted in middle- and high-school productions in New Jersey. But she became pregnant in her early 20s and delayed her acting goals.
"I was basically in survival mode," she said. "Being a single mother with one income. Everything was about him," she said of her son, Brandon.
She moved in with her mother in Florida and found work with a packing and shipping company. Eventually, she earned a degree in computer and graphic design and taught at a private school.
By her early 30s, headaches, forgetfulness, clumsiness and poor vision stoked worries about her health.
"I had extreme fatigue," she said. "I would have my break and literally go in my car and sleep."
Doctors diagnosed her with MS, a neurological disorder that affects the brain and spinal cord. The disease took its toll on more than her body.
Unable to work, she began receiving disability benefits. It was then, during therapy sessions, Hyman said, that she realized she was a lesbian.
"I was hysterical," she said. "It was so hard to accept it."
Eventually, Hyman came to understand that her sexuality had been there all along, under the surface.
She moved to Chesapeake in 2005. A few years later, Brandon, now 22, left home for James Madison University.
Without daily parenting responsibilities, Hyman started acting. She enrolled in writing and performance classes at The Muse Writers Center, a nonprofit resource center for the literary arts, and learned to do stand-up and sketch comedy
"Rona is willing to say and do the things that people are typically afraid to say and do - that makes her fearless and funny," said her instructor, Brad McMurran, founder of The Pushers. "She will deal with any subject that's thrown her way, from mundane to something crazy and sexual."
Hyman also is a versatile actress, he said. In this weekend's show, she plays a gay man, a playground thug and a security guard, among other roles.
During rehearsal earlier this week, Hyman ruffled a few stapled pages, mouthed her lines and sauntered to the center floor.
"You guys all ready?" yelled director Woolard. "Let's do this thing."
The scene moved fast with four women acting out a mafia-theme playground spoof. Hyman was the bully. Woolard told her to kneel, forgetting that multiple sclerosis makes that too difficult. Hyman improvised, hunching over, instead.
By the end of the scene, the all-female-cast was cracking up and ready to rehearse the other sketches, which ranged from love to light rail to women's empowerment.
McMurran said Hyman has natural acting talents that can't be taught. Still, Hyman continues studying. She worries that MS will ultimately hurt her ability to act.
She's not the only one. Brandon Hyman said he gets nervous when his mom performs. He is also proud at how far she's come.
"I've been so amazed," he said. "When I see her going on auditions or just doing small things, it just makes me so happy."
Rona Hyman is still in shock that she's been filmed for national TV five times within a year. In the future, she'd like to pursue musical theater and has started taking voice lessons. She still wrestles with doubts.
"I'm not your cookie-cutter, perfect-looking woman," she said. "Am I crazy? Why do I want to do this?"
But the answer is clear. "I can't not do it," she said.
Cherise M. Newsome, 757-446-2794, firstname.lastname@example.org