BWW Reviews: VISIBLE LANGUAGE from WSC Avant Bard & Gallaudet University
Collaboration is on full view in this production that touches on DC history, the deaf community in particular, and the importance of communication in general. Theater company WSC Avant Bard, has worked with the theater community at DC's vaunted university for the deaf and deaf studies, Gallaudet University, to create a work of musical theater in which deaf and hearing actors and creative artists come together to tell a very personal story. A story, as it turns out, that is both historically true-to-life and theatrically interesting. Alexander Graham Bell, Edward Miner Gallaudet, Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan, and, most importantly, deaf students of the time, all converge in the Washington of the late 1800s in a personal, professional and political dialogue about communication, assimilation, education and self respect.
The cast and creative team represent talents from both the Deaf and hearing communities. Four cast members are current Gallaudet students, one a recent graduate, one a current faculty member, and one a full time Gallaudet ASL (American Sign Language) interpreter. Scenic Designer Ethan Sinott and Lighting Designer Annie Weigand are both Deaf theater artists who work with the Gallaudet theater program. Also lending their skills are long time DC-area hearing performers.
Avant Bard Artistic Director Tom Prewitt, Director of Visible Language, promises a "unique experience for theatergoers whether they are Deaf or hearing," and there is no question that this is a promise fulfilled. The stage is alive with all forms of communication, from signing to electronic captioning above the set, actors who speak and sign simultaneously, and those whose lines are signed by a fellow actor. Mary Resing's book and lyrics, and Andy Welchel's music take us through a complicated historical debate over how the Deaf should be integrated into a hearing world. We hear from the students themselves, from Gallaudet's founder, Edward Miner Gallaudet (Tom Baldridge), Alexander Graham Bell (Harv Lester), who is a passionate advocate of teaching the Deaf to speak, Bell's wife Mabel (herself a Deaf woman who, as a child, had been taught to speak by Dr. Bell, and could operate well in the hearing world; played by Kari Ginsburg), and many others.
Visible Language is really a patchwork quilt of stories; Deaf rights, women's rights, civil rights, students' rights, are all touched on during the show. However, this ambitious project doesn't fully succeed as a work of storytelling. There are simply too many competing (albeit, compelling) story arcs, being conveyed by multiple means of communication methods, requiring some abrupt and uneven scene shifting, and leading to a rushed conclusion that elicits more confusion than satisfaction. That said, the important message of self respect and the vast array of human dimension, does indeed come across loud and clear.
Tom Baldridge as Gallaudet and Ginsburg as Mabel Bell, each earn particular praise for giving enjoyable and nuanced performances, but the shining light in the cast is Miranda Medugno (right), a recent Gallaudet graduate, as Helen Keller. Her remarkably expressive face and body language brings the charm, humor and poignancy to the story as only a 13-year-old can. Keller has been brought to Washington by teacher and companion Anne Sullivan ( Sarah Anne Sillers) to visit the school (called Kendall Green at the time), and meet with Dr. Bell, who has now decided to attempt the challenge of teaching Keller to speak. Bell argues that the Deaf must be taught to speak, and also discouraged from signing (his deaf wife does not even understand sign language). He believes that all Deaf persons are capable of learning his system of "articulation," the science of speech that his father devised to teach students to form various shapes of the mouth, tongue and throat to produce sound, and that without it, Deaf will never be able to reach an intellectual competence. Not all in the Deaf educational community agree with him, most notably some of the Kendall Green students.
Gallaudet, for his part, is skeptical about a broad application of Bell's system, and believes just as passionately, that the students must decide for themselves if they want to learn articulation, and that they are capable of learning (and teaching) using sign alone. He confidently bets against Bell in his articulation experiment with Helen Keller (teaching her to speak in seven days). Real life Gallaudet faculty member, Tom Baldridge (left), has a natural style that served the character well.
The most effective musical moments are when the cast comes together in voice and sign, particularly the opening number, "What Did You Say," and closing number, "I Want to Communicate," which bookend the story well.
Bell's failing effort to elicit speech from Helen Keller is injected with some welcome humor in the number "Nothing Sweller Than Helen Keller," a good example of the clever scenic design by Ethan Sinott, who uses every inch of the stage to allow for the many characters and many settings.
While Visible Language lacks a certain polish, and is in need of editing and focus that I think the story requires and deserves, it is an important and enlightening work of theater, and for those unfamiliar with the Deaf experience, it offers a good introduction to a whole new world.
Production photos © C. Stanley Photography