The sounds of silence echo in "The Loudest Man on Earth."
Catherine Rush's unconventional love story revolves around a deaf man who falls for a hearing woman. They don't speak the same language, but they manage to communicate across boundaries.
One of the hits of last year's New Works Festivals, "Loudest" asks bold questions about the nature of language. Engagingly directed by Pamela Berlin in its world premiere at TheatreWorks, the offbeat romantic comedy explores the clumsiness of words when it comes to capturing the richness of the human experience.
If the play focuses on the social clash between the hearing and deaf worlds at the expense of the characters at hand, it's still a thoughtful and challenging piece. While the playwright sensitively explores the issues facing a deaf man in a society geared toward the hearing, particularly the tyranny of normalcy, these characters still seem a little more like symbols than flesh and blood people. Rush was inspired by her marriage to lead actor Adrian Blue, who is deaf, but the play still lacks a sense of intimacy, which undermines the power of its observations about the need for connection.
Haylee (Julie Fitzpatrick) is a journalist who makes her living with words. Jordan (Blue) speaks eloquently through sign language. He's a loner who reaches out to the world primarily through his work as a theater director.
Fitzpatrick nimbly conveys both Haylee's thoughts and her translation of what Jordan has signed. Rush cleverly explores the act of translation, its beauty and its limitations, in scene after scene. Both actors navigate the play's complicated layers of communication with wit and grace as they speak in a combination of languages including English, American Sign Language and mime.
One of the most intriguing aspects of the piece is the silent monologues. Jordan delivers several arias without words, gesturing his point of view of events. If you don't speak sign language, it's often hard to tell what he's saying, and that sense of struggle is quite enlightening, a peek into another world. The audience must listen hard with its head as well as it heart, which is a unique experience.
The couple's battle to piece together a social circle is at the center of the plot. She has a friend rude enough to ask Jordan about Koko the signing gorilla. He gets insulted when Haylee tells a story about him driving with the car alarm on. Despite their feelings for each other, it's hard to bridge the communication gap between them. They love each other, but they are simply wired differently.
She finds herself editing his sometimes abrasive comments for her friends, but he makes no bones about who he is or what he believes in. For instance, he's proud to call himself "an oral failure." He doesn't try to talk and is not afraid of not fitting in because of it.
"I am proud of the fact that I know I can't speak clearly," as he puts it. "It's better than being one of those deaf people who run around speaking loudly and unintelligibly because their speech teachers lied to them and told them they were wonderful. Plenty of other things in this life to do well."
But there's not enough time devoted to Jordan's backstory (his parents shamed him for "hand flapping") and how his personality evolved in response to his life experiences.
Unfortunately, too much of the text spins around the couple's interactions with strangers, from cops to waiters. The interludes are often funny, sometimes shocking, always mired in prejudices of the world at large. Although deftly portrayed by Cassidy Brown and Mia Tagano, who leap through a dizzying assortment of bit parts, these interactions distract from the love story.
We never really come to know what makes Jordan so prickly or why Haylee is so tenderhearted. Without more of an understanding of what makes them tick as individuals, their romance seems rather generic, which is a pity, given the resonance of the play's themes.
'THE LOUDEST MAN
By Catherine Rush
Through Aug. 4
Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto
Running time: 1 hour,
40 minutes (no intermission)