"When the child of hearing parents grows up and gets married, her parents cry. But when the child of deaf parents grows up and gets married, they don't cry -- because their voices are taken away, and tears are not enough."
So says the father of newlywed Margaret Ryder in a toast he signs -- and she interprets, in a voice soft with emotion -- at a dinner for her mother-in-law.
Yet the hearing daughter of deaf parents has a life to live, too, and her struggle to make that decision is the story of "Love Is Never Silent," which launches Hallmark Hall of Fame's 35th season of teleplays Monday at 9 on NBC.
"Love Is Never Silent" actually has two themes: Communication between the deaf and the hearing, and communication between a daughter and her parents. That could occur in any family; breaking away is often hard to do.
But this is also a landmark production, the first TV movie to feature deaf actors so prominently. Of the film's three leads, Phyllis Frelich and Ed Waterstreet, who play the parents, are deaf, and Mare Winningham, as Margaret, is hearing. The drama's co-executive producer, actress Julianna Fjeld, who has a small part in the play, is also deaf; her colleague, executive producer Marian Rees, is hearing.
Fjeld, who is largely responsible for Joanne Greenberg's story reaching the screen, refers to the world of the deaf as "a visual culture." Certainly the production, filmed in Vancouver, fulfills its visual task. From the colorful, busy opening scenes in the Depression-era tenement neighborhood where Janice and Abel Ryder are trying to bring up their lively son and daughter, to two striking sequences set in quiet church sanctuaries, "Love Is Never Silent" is beautifully filmed. Unexpected moments of soundlessness drive home to hearing viewers the silent world of Janice, a seamstress, and Abel, a printer.
Frelich and Waterstreet do splendid jobs, Frelich as the distrustful, stubborn mother who doesn't realize the burden her daughter has borne, and Waterstreet as Margaret's more understanding father whose high school graduation gift to his daughter is to wear a hearing aid -- "so I won't look so deaf." Fjeld appears as a factory worker and friend of Janice.
But it is Emmy Award-winner Mare Winningham whose performance may touch your heart and win her another nomination. As the young woman who is her parents' only bridge to the hearing world they distrust, Winningham is the essence of the dutiful daughter. So great is Margaret's sense of responsibility to her parents that she almost denies her own future.
Two enormously talented actors appear in supporting roles. Sid Caesar is Mr. Petrakis, the Greek pawnbroker whose English may falter but whose wisdom never does ("Never hide your hands," he chides Margaret. "When they speak they're like angels.") Cloris Leachman, winner of one Oscar and five Emmys, plays Margaret's mother-in-law, a small part that barely tests the breadth of of her abilities.
Ten-year-old Susan Ann Curtis of Seattle opens the role of Margaret, who must chase her lively younger brother, Bradley (Mark Hildreth), through the streets and later buy his coffin. Curtis, whose only previous acting experience was in a school play, is the daughter of deaf parents. Frederic Lehne is cast as William, the persistent young man who marries Margaret and breaks through her parents' wall of fear.
Frelich, Waterstreet and Fjeld were in town recently to take part in ceremonies when the National Captioning Institute unveiled its new TeleCaption II adapter, and to talk about the Hallmark play.
Frelich recently appeared in "Children of a Lesser God," for which she won a Tony Award. Waterstreet, the only deaf director to have worked with both deaf and hearing companies, returns to acting after 11 performances with the National Theater of the Deaf.
The production was the first time that both deaf and hearing actors and production people were living and working together, said the three. Many people on the set learned sign language, said Fjeld, but no one gained the skill Winningham did.
Although she had only five days to study American Sign Language before filming began, by the end of filming Winningham was communicating general conversation to her fellow cast members, not just her lines from the play. But because much of the play is set in the 1930s, Fjeld explained, signing is pegged to that time period. (Signing, like language in general, has evolved so that certain motions appear dated.) Winningham had indeed become an accomplished signer, her fellow actors agreed -- but in the style of the '30s.
"Love Is Never Silent" is based on the 1970 book "In This Sign" by Joanne Greenberg. Fjeld, who has spent a decade trying to get Greenberg's story onto the screen, says the focus of the teleplay has been changed somewhat to emphasize Margaret. The book followed four decades in the lives of Janice and Abel Ryder, from their courtship in the 1930s to the 1970s.
Fjeld, Frelich and Waterstreet were lavish in their appreciation of the Hallmark company, for which "Love Is Never Silent" is its 148th presentation. They reported that Hallmark told them the company's support of the combined deaf-and-hearing venture was based on an earlier loyalty: Deaf Americans were among the first to buy and use Hallmark's greeting cards, particularly before they were able to communicate via teletypewriter..
Frelich, Waterstreet and Fjeld also agreed that both Gallaudet College and the National Theater of the Deaf, a touring theater based in Old Saybrook, Conn., had encouraged them to become more outgoing. Frelich was a founding member of the company.
Fjeld recalled that when she was growing up she had been encouraged not to laugh out loud, because her laughter was thought to be too abrupt, perhaps not socially acceptable. "That's when I became angry," she said, an anger that many deaf persons share. She was also taught not to sign in public so that she would not bring attention to herself as a deaf person. For the same reason, she said, many deaf persons were trained to read lips.
Such social stifling serves to separate the deaf from the hearing, causing them -- like any minority -- to group together rather than to become part of society, she explained.
But as someone involved with the theater, Fjeld said, it also was frustrating to find that hearing actors were being cast in the roles of deaf persons -- such as in "Johnny Belinda" -- when there were deaf actresses who would have been ideal for the parts. (Amy Irving got the title role; Fjeld appeared in the cast).
"Love Is Never Silent" includes roles for 40 deaf actors, most of whom form the congregation in a stunning scene filmed in a church. Together with a hearing minister (Lou Fant) who sings the lyrics, they silently sign "Amazing Grace." For many deaf persons, said Frelich, the church is the center of their social life.
The Hallmark production on NBC will air at the same time as ABC's "Monday Night Football," which is routinely closed- captioned for the hearing-impaired. The National Captioning Institute has also captioned "Love Is Never Silent." But the vivacious Frelich refused to be disheartened and took delight in the scheduling conflict for deaf viewers: "Now they have a choice!" she said, smiling.