"Love Is Never Silent," the NBC Hallmark Hall of Fame's season opener at 9 tonight on Channel 4, has been widely touted as a drama about the hearing child of nonhearing parents and her struggle for independence.
The promotions for this dramatization of Joanne Greenberg's bestselling 1970 novel, "In This Sign," do an injustice to both book and drama. This is a play about human relationships, soaring far beyond the confines of problems between people who can hear and people who can't.
In "Love Is Never Silent," deafness is a metaphor for anything that frustrates communication: ignorance, fear, mistrust, shame -- a cycle that recurs throughout history.
Margaret Ryder's parents might not have been deaf; it wasn't their deafness per se that caused their problems. It was their ignorance of city ways, their naivete', their poverty. Their lack of hearing might instead have been an inability to speak English. Or a conflict of culture. The waves of immigrants to this country in the late 19th and early 20th centuries -- from Ireland, then later from eastern Europe -- included thousands who were in one sense or another like the Ryders. They too were often buffeted and victimized by too many too eager to take advantage of anyone weaker.
But what makes tonight's program special -- and what gives it its unique thrust -- is the presence of first-rate actors who happen to be nonhearing. All the nonhearing roles, three of them major, are played by nonhearing actors.
Phyllis Frelich, who won a Tony for her performance in "Children of a Lesser God" and was one of the founders of the National Theatre of the Deaf, gives an especially brilliant performance as the frightened and embittered Janice Ryder, Margaret's mother, whose only communication with her husband and her daughter is through sign language. Janice, warned by nonhearing colleagues at the mill where she works to sign secretly, is unable to shake the feeling that signing is somehow shameful, or worse.
Even for those unlearned in signing, as most hearing people still are, Frelich's passionate performance -- her anger, her terror, her grief and her love -- are tangible, moving evocations.
Husband Abel -- calmer, warmer, more playful, occasionally blundering -- is also sensitively played, by Theatre of the Deaf actor Ed Waterstreet.
Julianna Fjeld, another veteran of "Children of a Lesser God," originally conceived of "In This Sign" as a TV film and is coexecutive producer. She plays Janice Ryder's friend Barbara.
Mare Winningham, who was given only a few days to learn to sign well enough to be believable, plays Margaret with an almost too understated charm, lacking enough passion at some points. Sid Caesar plays a Greek immigrant, the young Margaret's only hearing confidant, himself handicapped by his accent, which Caesar makes sound somewhat more Italian than Greek.
On the whole, the play captures the spirit of the book, although it necessarily loses some of its breadth -- some of the agonies of the child Abel trying to cope in a hearing world, and the exultation of being at last initiated into the world of signing. It loses, too, the romance and marriage of Abel and Janice, and the overwhelming legal entanglements that underscored their bitterness, shaping their personalities forever.
And it loses also some of the hurdles that Margaret, the Ryders' sole link to the hearing world, had to overcome herself. Her first language was signing, after all, and it was only when the Greek pawnbroker's radio introduced her to the stilted (but educated) tones of Lord Henry Brinthrop on the venerable radio soap opera "Our Gal Sunday" that she began to become truly bilingual. This leads to one of the funny/sad book episodes lost in the TV version: Margaret, then about 13, must accompany her mother to a clinic. When she asks the doctor what her mother has, he sighs and tells her, to her complete bewilderment, "Nothing that a Florida vacation and a small fortune won't cure."
"He didn't know the rules of the radio," the book continues, "but she didn't know any other and so she had to say, 'Thank you, Doctor. We owe you a debt that can never be repaid,' and then they would go and he would stare after them."
But its faults are minor. "Love Is Never Silent," also featuring a small but sensitive performance by Cloris Leachman as Margaret's mother-in-law, is tender and moving, making a point about hearing and not hearing, and a greater point about the foibles of man.