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'Window' on the silent soul

October 24, 2005|Philip Brandes | Special to The Times

Language becomes a central metaphor in Stephen Sachs' "Open Window" when a troubled linguist declares, "Nouns alone, by themselves, mean nothing." By extension, neither do people -- the fundamental message of Sachs' compelling new drama is about the need for connection, between words and between souls.

Artfully constructed around the most extreme isolation imaginable, "Open Window" concerns the discovery of a deaf urban wild man (Chris B. Corrigan), who during childhood was kept chained to a basement pipe by his monstrously abusive father. Deprived not only of socialization but of any language development, the victim finally broke free and killed his captor. Now institutionalized, he's placed in the care of Rachel (Linda Bove), a famous linguist, and Susan (Shoshannah Stern), an ambitious young psychologist.

Racing against the clock to make meaningful contact with their patient before a legal hearing to determine his competence to stand trial for murder, the two women find themselves in profound disagreement over an appropriate course of treatment. Further complicating matters, both therapists have been assigned to the case because they are also deaf -- giving an intriguing twist to their clashes over language acquisition and communication.

A daring co-production developed by the Pasadena Playhouse and Deaf West Theatre, "Open Window" seamlessly melds the strengths of both companies. Under Eric Simonson's direction, first-rate Playhouse resources and production values -- including highly effective video projections and room-shaking subwoofer rumbles -- provide an ideal showcase for the emotional slam of Deaf West performances.

Deaf West productions rarely fall short by traditional theatrical standards (and this one is no exception), but for hearing audiences they can also be transformative: refocusing perceptions of American Sign Language as an artistic medium of unique power and beauty.

The fluid, expressive movements of signed performances have an emotional directness that puts the abstractions of spoken dialogue to shame. Fortunately for the signing-challenged, voice translation is supplied by a Greek chorus (Jacqueline Schultz, Erin Bennett, Kyle Colerider-Krugh) -- a natural, elegant extension of the traditional chorus-as-commentator function.

Deaf West co-founder Bove is a mature theater artist of the first rank. Her richly complex Rachel combines brilliant intellect (she can discuss the inner workings of languages she has never heard spoken), caustic wit (her physicalized sarcasm gives Jewish mothers a run for their money) and vulnerability (she's haunted by a tragedy that cryptically manifests itself in the form of an imaginary little boy, played by Michael Adam Soudakoff or Jake Grafman).

Driven by her hatred of helplessness, Rachel is obsessed with achieving a breakthrough in the case. When Susan cites the prevailing wisdom that we learn our first language as children or not at all, and cautions that for their patient the critical window of opportunity has closed, Rachel snaps: "Then I will pry it open."

As Susan, Stern maintains the right tone of respectful opposition in a character grappling with her own past traumas. On the surface, Susan's soft femininity may defer to Rachel's icy professionalism, but she finds oblique ways to impose her therapy agenda based on physical and emotional contact with the wild man, whom she names Cal (after half-man/half-beast Caliban, one of many echoes from Shakespeare's "The Tempest").

In the challenging role of Cal, the writhing, sputtering Corrigan evokes what Susan calls a "murdered soul," robbed of any capacity to understand its conscious existence. Though Cal's predicament is dramatic, the play's focus is not on the patient, but on his caretakers.

Rachel and Susan each have human flaws that compromise their motives, yet they're both trying to do the right thing. Their conflict may lack a facile "good-guy/bad-guy" dynamic, yet playwright Sachs infuses it with riveting dramatic heft.

"Open Window' is not without structural limitations. Sachs has a tendency to rely too much on heady, sometimes stilted debate to make his points, but under Simonson's sure-handed staging, Bove and Stern handily supply the emotional counterweight. Most important, rather than rehashing a familiar struggle of the deaf in a hearing world, Sachs has crafted a context that levels the playing field between the hearing and the deaf. Compared with Cal's tragic isolation, Susan and Rachel's signing becomes just another way of communicating -- or trying to communicate -- which puts them in the same boat with all of us.


`Open Window'

Where: Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave.

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays to Fridays, 5 and 9 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays; 2 p.m. Nov. 9

Ends: Nov. 20

Price: $37 to $53

Contact: (626) 356-7529

Running Time: 1 hour, 20 minutes

Linda Bove...Rachel

Shoshannah Stern...Susan

Chris B. Corrigan...Cal

Erin Bennett...Woman #2/

Voice of Susan

Jacqueline Schultz...Woman #1/

Voice of Rachel

Kyle Colerider-Krugh...Man

Jake Grafman/Michael Adam Soudakoff...Boy

By Stephen Sachs. Directed by Eric Simonson. Sets by Chris Barreca. Lighting by Peter Maradudin. Costumes by Myung Hee Cho. Sound by Lindsay Jones. Production stage manager Lea Chazin.

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