Michael Toner awoke Friday before dawn, excited and anxious about his meeting at the theater. His first since the accident, his first since he lost his leg.

So much depended on the meeting.

If his physical therapists and his director agreed he was ready - and most important, if he believed he was - it would lead to the stage.

His role awaits him.

It has been there, drawing ever closer since that night in June when the veteran Philadelphia stage actor lost his left leg in a Center City hit-and-run.

It has been his to decline, only if he felt he was not yet ready. It has been what he has worked toward through five months of pain and effort - what has given him hope and kept him from falling into despair.

"The one great goal that I have had in the distance to aim for," Toner told me Thursday, before the meeting. "The one thing that has kept me from just sitting on the couch and sulking, feeling like my life was over."

Now, for Toner, a goal that has at times seemed so very far seems so very near.

Rehearsals for the Walnut Street Theatre's production of Eugene O'Neill's A Moon for the Misbegotten begin in four weeks. A three-week run there will be followed by a 15-city tour.

Before the accident, Toner, 68, was cast for the role of Phil Hogan, a conniving, if kindhearted, Irish tenant farmer scheming to marry off his daughter.

A perfect fit, director Kate Galvin said, for the gracious actor who has earned his reputation specializing in the heavy melancholy and dark humor of Irish dramas.

"He killed his audition," she recalled. "He knocked everyone out of the picture."

Then came the accident. After a rehearsal for another play on that June night, Toner had run some errands and was heading for the train. Crossing 11th Street at the corner of Market, he was struck by a car whose driver sped off.

In his only memory of what happened, he lay in the street, reaching for the curb, which in his shock and disorientation, seemed so impossibly high.

Then came six weeks in a bed at Jefferson and the cruel phantom pain associated with a limb he no longer had. And months of healing and exercise at home before he was ready for his prosthesis - and the intense therapy at Moss Rehab that followed.

"I have a play I signed on to do in December. Will I be ready?" Toner asked occupational therapist Drew Lerman during his first session.

Some days, fear and insecurity stole upon the actor and he did not see how he could possibly be ready. Other days, he found comfort in the mantra of his therapists: Always push one more step ahead.

He rehearsed in his living room.

Unable to hone the physicality of his character, he concentrated on mental preparation. And in that way, Toner grew confident as he achieved in his living room the moments he said he had achieved once in every great while on the stage.

Metaphysical moments.

Moments when it felt as if he were outside his body, watching, just the way the audience will be watching.

Moments when the character took over. When it was no longer Michael Toner but Phil Hogan. And in those moments, Toner no longer thought of his injury. In those moments, Michael Toner felt as if had two legs again.

At Friday's meeting, Toner listened as Lerman and his physical therapist, Alba Seda, discussed with the play's scenic designer, Andrew Thompson, small modifications that could allow Toner to more easily navigate the set.

They measured out the 7-inch step leading to the stage farmhouse and the 21-inch slope serving as the farm hill, and counted each step of 18-step staircase backstage that Toner will need to descend during the chase scene.

Toner still had time to build strength and stamina. He would be ready, they said.

Then, Toner said a few words - words he had carefully rehearsed the night before.

He believes in himself, he said. Believes he will be ready. But he would understand if they decided it was just too much - that it would be easier to go with someone else.

"The show must go on," he said. "I would not have hard feelings."

Nonsense, Galvin, the director, told him. "You're the best actor for the role."

And with that, the actor went home, exhausted but excited - and ready for the final steps that will take him back to the stage.