Truth be told, I dread going to theater to "learn" anything. It's probably rooted in that I-don't-wanna-go-to-school sensation some of us felt more acutely than others in our single-digit days. For some reason, I was hardwired to imagine each school day as 10 years on a chain gang. This disposition evolved over the years into some good things, like a healthy distrust of authority, an appreciation of unstructured time, and a lifelong aversion to gloppy cafeteria chow. But something fundamentally immature remains, because when someone threatens to teach me something, my inner eight-year-old rears up and, with runny nose, declares: "I know enough stuff already!"
So it was tough approaching Mixed Blood Theatre's current offering, Sweet Nothing in My Ear, after a friend said he'd "learned a lot" from this Stephen Sachs script. A drama about a family struggling with a child's deafness? No, this couldn't ignite the little black piece of coal that is my heart.
But the play surprised me at every turn. It starts with P.C. blandness, as we get a portrait of a young, enlightened, mixed-culture family: a deaf mother (Terrylene) and son (Garrett Lukin), and a hearing father (Gabriel Jarret) who is not only proficient in American Sign Language (ASL), but also embraces the deaf community's stance that deafness is a culture, not a disability. When a doctor suggests looking into a cochlear implant for the son, Dad stiff-arms him at first, defending his son's wholeness. A seed has been planted, though. When the father brings up the possibility to his wife--gingerly at first, then with increasing militancy--this family's easy happiness starts to crash. And from here, the play plumbs ever deeper, with a resonances that go beyond the issue of deafness into the rich thematic territory of tribalism.
Sweet Nothing in My Ear is a compelling play and an even more fascinating theatrical experience. Much of it is acted in ASL, with actors on the sidelines providing running translation. The crosscurrents of spoken and non-spoken communication are mesmerizing at times, notably during a scene where the parents consult a doctor who doesn't know ASL. The husband simultaneously translates for his wife and argues with her; the wife battles to be a full participant in this conversation, suspecting that she's being left out of a good deal of it (she's correct); and the doctor tries to keep professional control as the air gets thick with long-buried resentments.
Multidimensional scenes like this one benefit from the production's skilled performances, such as Jarret's wrenching turn as the torn husband. But the heart of the play is deaf actress Terrylene. She's an amazing performer, deftly switching gears from light comedy to something close to Greek tragedy. Her spoken language counterpart--the person who voices her lines--is Sally Wingert, who invests this modest role with just the right balance of assertion and deference, synching beautifully with Terrylene. By comparison, some of the other actors providing voices for the ASL scenes push too hard, overacting to compensate for their physical remove, nudging the scenes toward melodrama. The unfortunate effect is that of a poorly dubbed foreign film. It's unnecessary, given the firepower of the ASL performances.
I confess I never knew what an expressive, even athletic form of communication ASL is. If there's a "teaching" dimension to this production, that's where it lies, and in the end I was quite grateful to be schooled (there's progress for you!). But like all good plays in the realistic tradition, Sweet Nothing also presents its consideration of social and political ideas in the messy context of human relationships, and thankfully it pulls no punches there.