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HOWARD ROSENBERG

'Silent' Shatters The Silence

December 09, 1985|HOWARD ROSENBERG

Perservering Julianna Fjeld is one deaf person who is determined to have the last word.

For a decade, the luminous actress/producer has been the loudest voice behind "Love Is Never Silent," an award-deserving "Hallmark Hall of Fame" story about a hearing daughter and her deaf parents. It airs at 9 tonight on NBC (Channels 4, 36 and 39).

Finally.

Marian Rees is executive producer and Fjeld--who was born deaf and reared in Minneapolis by hearing parents--is the co-executive producer of this heroic and lovingly executed adaptation of Joanne Greenberg's novel, "In This Sign."

Director Joseph Sargent gets wonderful performances from Mare Winningham as the hearing daughter and from Phyllis Frelich and Ed Waterstreet--who are actually deaf--as the deaf parents. Fjeld herself has a small role as the mother's work companion.

There has always been far more talk on TV than communication, most of it babble that immediately evaporates like music in a hall with terrible acoustics. The words are practically ends in themselves, meant only to fill airtime instead of moving from lips to ears.

Not now. "Love Is Never Silent" may become an important TV footnote in enlightening the hearing public about the deaf. This is a show that talks in the truest sense. It communicates, with eyes, with hands, with bodies, with emotions, with intelligence.

For years, though, it appeared that "Love Is Never Silent" would be the sound that American TV audiences would never hear. Seeing herself as playing the mother, Fjeld first optioned the book 10 years ago when she was performing with the National Theatre for the Deaf, and she spent years trying to get it produced.

A drama largely about deaf people, played by deaf people, and for a hearing audience? No matter that the parent-daughter tensions were in part universal and that the story could be a landmark in shattering the obnoxious "deaf and dumb" stigma that Fjeld herself had encountered throughout her life.

Trying to sell Hollywood on "Love Is Never Silent," the mostly unknown and untried Fjeld faced rejection after rejection and disappointment after disappointment, including a Warner Bros. TV development deal with ABC that ultimately fell through. As usual, the industry turned a deaf hear to the deaf.

"I knocked on many doors," Fjeld, 38, recalled through an interpreter recently. "I went to all kinds of people, you name it. Some of them would read the book and say it wasn't commercial. I was rather a militant. I was angry at the studios for not using deaf actors for deaf roles, and that turned people off. Hollywood people never knew that there were deaf actors around. I was a lost soul."

So "Love Is Never Silent" was silent.

Then four years ago, Fjeld's writer friend Darlene Craviotto (who would ultimately write a fine teleplay for "Love Is Never Silent"), suggested that she meet a producer "of quality" named Marian Rees.

Rees was a caring and successful producer with a track record that included the "Hallmark Hall of Fame" production of "The Marva Collins Story."

"Marian was the first one I talked to who said that we must have deaf actors," Fjeld recalled. "And for the first time, my heart sang a special musical note."

Rees still had to fight to get "Love Is Never Silent" on the air with its integrity intact. Before helping find it a home with Hallmark on NBC, the project was rejected by CBS, which wanted hearing actors to play the parents.

Rees and Fjeld also had to resist NBC's attempts to soften the character of the mother--who at times is stubborn and possessive--in a way that would make her at once more sympathetic and less believable.

"And I was also committed to having no subtitles on the screen," Rees said. So as Frelich and Waterstreet speak to Winningham in American Sign Language and vice versa, Winningham simultaneously translates in a way that is natural and understandable.

To get the story on the air, though, Fjeld did have to make one enormous sacrifice--herself.

Hallmark insisted that the pivotal mother's role not go to the relatively unknown Fjeld, but to Frelich, a splendid actress who had won a Tony for her work in "Children of a Lesser God" on Broadway. She gives a stunning performance in "Love Is Never Silent."

"Yes, I was hurt and I was disappointed and Marian knew it," Fjeld said. "But I kept it to myself. I understood the marketable side of the business, that Phyllis had the name. And after I saw Phyllis on the screen, I knew she was perfect for the role."

An aspiring actress since childhood, when she devoured movie magazines and idolized Spencer Tracy, Fjeld's own life has been a catalogue of hearing society's abuses of the deaf. She attended a number of schools for the deaf in the 1950s where hearing teachers equated deafness with inferiority.

"I was told not to laugh because I make strange noises when I laugh. So I lost the art of laughing for a long time. And I was punished a lot--I was sent to the infirmary and my hands would be tied up--because I spoke out too radically in class."

Young Julianna was also taught in school to fear and to automatically look up to hearing people as superior, and it was only many years later that she began to understand the truth--that she was their equal.

When talking with Fjeld, in fact, you sense that she is communicating on a higher, almost spiritual level. "We are not handicapped," she said. "We can walk. We can talk. We can laugh. We don't miss music because we are from a different culture. I hear sounds, visual sounds."

Sounds worth a thousand words.

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