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It's a battle of wills in a silent reality

Stephen Sachs' play uses sign language and voiced words to touch on the power and frailty of human interconnections.

October 23, 2005|Karen Wada | Special to The Times

RACHEL is a genius. She has a MacArthur grant to prove it. She also lost her son at the supermarket -- his abduction and murder shattering her belief in the ability of the mind and her chosen field, linguistics, to control the world around her. She seeks to regain that control by attempting the impossible: teaching language to a mute young man accused of killing the father who chained him in the basement for most of his life.

Then Susan barges in. The psychology grad student claims that she was sent to evaluate Rachel's patient -- whom she calls Cal, as in Shakespeare's Caliban -- and will take custody of him after his lessons fail. Which they will, she says, because what Cal needs is nurturing, not the flashcards Rachel insists on flipping at him.

The women's battle of wills forms the heart of Stephen Sachs' "Open Window," a co-production between the Pasadena Playhouse and Deaf West Theatre, which commissioned the play because -- oh, yes -- did anyone mention that Rachel, Susan and Cal can't hear? Their condition is a fact of life, but not the fact in their lives. Each has bigger dilemmas to confront.

Sachs says he and Deaf West artistic director Ed Waterstreet wanted to tell a story not about deafness but about people who happen to be deaf. When they started discussing ideas five years ago, they were intrigued by reports about a so-called wild child.

Their attention soon shifted to the adults who helped such children reenter society. "We wanted to look at intelligent, articulate professionals," says Sachs, managing artistic director of the Fountain Theatre. " 'Open Window' is really about the struggle between the two women."

It also is about what language can and cannot do. "Cal and Rachel are at opposite ends of the spectrum," Sachs says. "Rachel is a nationally renowned linguist. Then there is this thing, this man who is language-less. But both of them are crippled souls who share isolation. Susan believes Cal doesn't need language so much as human contact. Maybe she also is trying to get Rachel to remember that what language does, besides create logic and thought, is to enable us to connect to another human being."

The production may remind audiences of both the power and frailty of such connections. "Open Window" is being presented in Deaf West's signature blending of spoken English and American Sign Language. Nonhearing actors, who are playing the central characters, sign while their lines are being voiced by hearing actors who represent a Greek chorus of sorts.

"As I wrote I thought about how the play would work in the air as opposed to the ear," says Sachs, who can hear but is fluent in ASL. He is curious to see how deaf audiences will react to the script's emphasis on language and literary references, including the many like Caliban -- a monster who learns to speak -- that come from "The Tempest."

He hopes those who can hear will understand that just because others can't, that doesn't mean they also can't think or feel or that they can't be a mother, an overachiever or, in Susan's case, an ambitious protegee. In other words, says Sachs, here are characters you don't see onstage: "Deaf people, for starters, but also deaf people who are not saints."

An approach born of frustration

"OPEN WINDOW" is the next step in the 62-year-old Waterstreet's quest to create a new kind of theater, one in which the deaf and the hearing enjoy a shared, if not identical, experience. After college, he spent years in traditional theater-for-the-deaf, which left him frustrated at the way playgoers were forced to rely on supertitles or signers on the side of the stage.

After Waterstreet and his wife, actress Linda Bove, came to Los Angeles in the 1980s, he started his own theater. In 1990, he met Sachs, who had opened the Fountain in Hollywood with choreographer Deborah Lawlor. Sachs, 46, became interested in deaf culture in 1987 when he watched an ASL interpretation of one of his plays. The Fountain gave Deaf West its first home and hosted programs for deaf writers and poets. In 1997 it presented Sachs' "Sweet Nothing in My Ear," about the conflicts between a deaf mother and a hearing father whose son is eligible for a cochlear implant.

In the mid-'90s, Deaf West moved to North Hollywood, where it won acclaim for dramas like "A Streetcar Named Desire." Then Waterstreet fulfilled a childhood desire to "do something crazy -- a musical for the deaf."

He and managing director Bill O'Brien recruited Broadway veteran Jeff Calhoun to direct a hit revival of "Oliver!" A couple of years later, their imaginative reinvention of Roger Miller and William Hauptman's "Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" played to sellout crowds before transferring to the Mark Taper Forum. In 2003, the show went to Broadway, where a Roundabout Theatre Company co-production earned special Tony honors. National tours visited 39 cities in 49 weeks.

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