I was reminded of this book when watching the world premiere production of Open Window at the Pasadena Playhouse, because deaf actress Linda Bove is acting her face off, giving a complex and layered performance in sign and gesture, but the actress providing her character's voice, Jacqueline Schultz, comes nowhere near capturing it. Schultz's job - and that of Erin Bennett, who voices Susan, the character played by Shoshannah Stern - isn't clearly defined. The hearing actresses aren't interpreting the performances of the deaf actresses, nor are they acting the roles in parallel to them. Instead, they occupy an odd little world between the two extremes, where they interpret with a partial attempt at conveying the emotion inherent in the leading actresses' signing, and end up with the theatrical equivalent of "why-why." If you close your eyes and listen, it would make a lousy radio play; the timing is off and the emphasis is almost childlike in its simplicity. It raises a troubling paradox for hearing audience members who don't know ASL: You cannot understand the words and concepts being exchanged on stage without the "voice" actresses, but you know you'd enjoy the play more if you could somehow experience Bove and Stern's performances without having them as intermediaries.
As for Stephen Sachs' play itself, Open Window will someday make one hell of a two-act play. Right now, it's a single act that runs about an hour and a quarter. The set-up is this: a deaf child was housed in a mental hospital for years, where his deafness was never diagnosed and he never learned language; when the hospital closed, he was returned home, where his father kept him chained in the basement for twelve years. Now an adult, he was discovered after having strangled his father with the chain. His fate is in the hands of two women: Rachel, the linguist, played by Bove, who believes he can be taught sign language and will eventually be able to communicate well enough to stand trial; and Susan (Stern), a psychologist who wants him declared incompetent so she can take this tortured soul (she calls him "Cal" after Caliban) back with her to the National Institute of Mental Health.
Rachel and Susan clash immediately upon meeting. Rachel has a limited time (before a court hearing) in which to teach Cal to sign, and she keeps showing him flashcards and repeating signs for simple nouns ("house," "chair") at him. Susan is a young graduate student and presents two problems for Rachel. First, she wants to spend time with Cal, just interacting with him in a safe environment. Second, on an intellectual level, she challenges the premise that anyone can acquire an initial language at such a late age.
Conflicts abound - the women argue about what should be done with Cal, what can be done with Cal, the nature of language, the necessity of human interaction, their pasts, their futures, what they want out of life, their unique experiences as deaf women, and so on. There are secrets to be uncovered and mysteries to be explained. There's a lot that goes on in this play, and many topics only get superficial coverage. Indeed, as the play moves on, Cal gets superficial coverage. Even though he is always in the room, Susan and Rachel ignore him while they're busy debating. It is a huge flaw in the play. While Rachel and Susan argue on, Cal isn't just sitting in a corner quietly rocking, he's actively trying to gain control of his environment (in a captivating performance by Chris B. Corrigan, which sometimes upstages the women). It doesn't merely raise the question, it shouts it: Why is Rachel is so busy trying to teach Cal her language, rather than considering the possibility of learning his? (And, on a lesser note, why on earth use a flash card of a chair when you've got a chair in the room? Isn't it easier to teach the name of a real object than the name of a representation of one?)
Eric Simonson's direction, even apart from the misfire of the not-quite-interpreting actresses, includes some questionable choices. In an outdoor scene, the women have a somewhat nonsensical conversation about seeing shapes. I think they were supposed to be talking about seeing images in the clouds (a projection of clouds on the wall reinforced this) but nobody even glanced upward. And the last line in the play, arguably one of the most important, was set up so poorly, it was hard to determine whether it was truth or metaphor.
Even with all of that against it, there is something undeniably powerful and moving in Open Window. Bove's performance is a wonder; Rachel begins the play as a dominating presence - a woman who is used to getting her way and resents the thought that Susan can bring anything to the table. But as the play continues, Susan and Cal both affect Rachel in ways she never expected, and Bove takes her on this difficult journey brilliantly. At times, Schultz's voice is wholly unnecessary. Through Bove's expressive gestures and physicality, Rachel's experience comes through loud and clear.
Open Window runs at the Pasadena Playhouse through November 20, 2005. For tickets and information, see www.pasadenaplayhouse.org.
Pasadena Playhouse - Sheldon Epps, Artistic Director; Lyla White, Executive Director - in association with Deaf West Theatre presents Open Window by Stephen Sachs. Set Design Chris Barreca; Costume Design Myung Hee Cho; Lighting Design Peter Maradudin; Original Music & Sound Design Lindsay Jones; Casting Michael Donovan; Production Stage Manager Lea Chazin; Stage Manager Sue Karutz. Directed by Eric Simonson. Originally commissioned by Deaf West Theatre - Ed Waterstreet, Artistic Director; Bill O'Brien, Managing Director.