“I want to communicate,” goes an early chorus of the musical “Visible Language,” and that fundamental message is delivered in song, American Sign Language and supertitles projected above the small stage at Gallaudet University.
That range of expression is the real drama of this fascinating show, which hinges on the 1890s debate between telephone inventor Alexander Graham Bell and Edward Miner Gallaudet, the university’s founder and its president for decades. Bell, who also worked as an educator of hearing-impaired people, believed that they should be taught to speak, and the less dogmatic Gallaudet favored sign language. By mixing hearing and deaf actors in a production that communicates in so many ways all at once, “Visible Language” makes the debate engagingly immediate.
To be clear, this collaboration between Gallaudet’s theater program and the 25-year-old WSC Avant Bard is far from the most polished show in town. The acting is highly variable, the scenes move in blunt strokes and the production makes a disappointingly dull villain of Bell, whose wife, deaf from age 5, was taught lip reading and continued to speak.
Still, Mary Resing’s script and Andy Welchel’s bright, jaunty songs (with lyrics by Resing) make plain how deep and personal the issue is. A black student named Ennals, appealingly played by Aarron Loggins and based on a real student at Kendall Green (as Gallaudet was known at the time), is full of potential. Will signing — not speaking — limit the options of students like him? Helen Keller, played by the wonderfully expressive Miranda Medugno, arrives with Anne Sullivan (a nicely tart Sarah Anne Sillers), and they finger-spell and sign, with Keller even taking speech lessons from Bell.
Perhaps Bell — the subject of a one-man dramatic bio by PBS newsman Jim Lehrer last year — can’t help but come off as imperiously smug here as he insists on audible speech, and actor Harv Lester doesn’t really come up with more than one note for the role. In the teaching scenes with Keller that include a quick sardonic chorus, Bell’s method is so time-intensive and expensive (and unsuccessful, as dramatized) that it comes across as elitist. The pupils, played by Gallaudet students, understandably resist.
If the drama sometimes flattens out, director Tom Prewitt’s surprisingly big production is consistently multilayered. A four-piece band (piano, bass, drums and reeds) is positioned above the small stage, and 16 actors play the historical figures and composites. By creating such a densely populated village, Prewitt and Resing boldly explore the conflicts while celebrating the variety of ways to get one’s message across. (Aaron Kubey is credited as director of artistic sign language, which apparently draws from older and current versions of ASL.) Everyone wants to be understood, and “Visible Language” makes you want to lean in and understand.
Book and lyrics by Mary Resing, music by Andy Welchel. Directed by Tom Prewitt; music director, Elisa Rosman; choreography, Tyler Herman; choreography for “I Want to Communicate,” Kriston Pumphrey; scenic design, Ethan Sinnott; lighting, Annie Wiegand; costumes, Elizabeth Ennis; sound design, Neil McFadden. About 1 hour and 45 minutes. Tickets: $30-$35. Through Nov. 16 at Eastman Studio Theatre at Gallaudet University, 800 Florida Ave. NE. Call
703-418-4808 or visit wscavantbard.org or gallaudet.ticketleap.com.