At its best, good theatre creates new truth for viewers and, over the course of a few hours, can change the way a person thinks. Local company Azeotrope's latest work, the world premiere play Sound, has expansive goals of inclusivity. Armed with Don Nguyen’s script and uniformly incredible actors—including many from local deaf theatre collective Deaf Spotlight—co-directors Desdemona Chiang and Howie Seago met those goals and exceeded them, bringing hearing and deaf theatre together in one rich and whole work of art.
Sound deftly weaves American Sign Language and spoken English together in a way that makes sense, is accessible and actually enhances the story line. The play opens in current day Martha’s Vineyard, where ex-husband-and-wife George (Ryan Schlecht) and Barbara (Lindsay W. Evans) explosively sign over a minimalist set of crates against white sheet backdrops, desperately fighting about whether their deaf daughter should get a cochlear implant. The hearing Barbara fights fierce resistance from stubborn George, who has been deaf from birth and views the hearing world with suspicion and disdain. (It's a role that could have been remarkably one-note in its anger, a pitfall Schlecht’s nuanced performance thankfully avoided.) Behind Schlecht and Evans, supporting cast members Andrew Wilkes and Jessica Kiely voice the words crafted by hands, adding an audio soundtrack for the hearing members of the audience.
That remarkable first fight sets a mood with its rawness, hitting the perfect notes of bitter anger and rich history between these characters. They introduced the tension between deaf and hearing so intensely that the audience invests in the fight, an emotional necessity to carry them through the rest of the play. Through the sluggish but necessary and technically interesting 19th-century flashbacks to Alexander Graham Bell, toiling to create the first hearing aid on Martha’s Vineyard (aided tremendously by Wilkes’s dynamic, nearly-fourth wall-breaking Mr. Pease as he translates for the Island’s deaf, aka the audience). Through the travails of angsty teenager Allison (Cheyenna Clearbrook), whose attitude and eye rolls spoke so loudly I almost didn’t realize she never utters a word.
The first translation method, with actors speaking signed dialogue aloud, falls into a perfect rhythm that allows the main actors to stand out even though they aren’t talking. They sign beautifully and expressively, their movement dynamic enough to hold the attention of the hearing audience. Other translation methods were supertitles projected on three sides of the stage, to help both the hearing and the deaf audiences. This technique was mostly used with Bell’s discussions with his deaf and rapidly blinding wife, who spoke in the rich tones of someone not hearing their voice. Text message conversations were also used for the teenagers, badly-spelled screeds that still felt authentic.
Before the show began at ACT’s Bullitt Cabaret, the theatre filled with the low-level cacophony of slamming fists and slaps as signed conversation filled the air, and afterward there were as much sparkling signed applause as there were the echoing sound of claps. Sound is a beautiful work, special because of what it accomplishes but also what it is. The greatness lies in Nguyen’s story and the direction by Chiang and Seago, and in successfully showing a future of deaf theatre that could work and should work for all audiences. It’s a rare moment when hopes for inclusion don’t over-correct, but in this case Sound hit a perfect tone.
Sound runs through Oct. 4.