When Worlds Collide

REVIEW by Willard Manus

The collision of the hearing and deaf worlds provides the drama in Susan Zeder's THE TASTE OF SUNRISE, which was first produced locally earlier this year at CSUN's Department of Theater and then was remounted recently at Deaf West Theatre in N. Hollywood.

CSUN is home to the National Center on Deafness and a deaf studies department, both of whose resources were tapped by the play's co-directors, Doug Kaback and Bob Hilterman, in putting together a mixed cast of speaking and signing actors who worked together harmoniously to deliver Zeder's poetic text.

SUNRISE focuses on Tuc (Michael Olivier), born deaf in 1917, victim of a scarlet fever epidemic that took his mother's life. Tuc may not be able to hear or speak, but he has an innate sweetness and a strong love of place. Nell Hicks (Kristen Egermeier), the midwife/naturopath who delivered him, believes he should remain on his father's farm, sheltered from a hostile world which all too often treats the hearing- and speech-impaired as less-than-human creatures.

The father (Joshua Nixon), though, is determined to send Tuc to a state institute of the deaf, where he will be taught to speak. Tuc's experiences at the school form the heart of the play, which investigates the still-relevant battle over the use of sign language. Signing was forbidden by the authorities (Kelli Simpson and Richard DeVere), despite the fact that it afforded the students complete and expressive communication.

Those who broke the state mandate were reprimanded and even beaten, but the counter-culture of sign language could not be repressed, thanks to the bravery and defiance of the students, especially Roscoe (Justin Patt) and Maizie (Jessica Strohfeldt), both of whom befriend Tuc. Maizie, the child of hearing and hearing-impaired parents, is one of the best-drawn characters, a high-spirited mixture of wisdom and innocence, sophistication and naivete. Strohfeldt explored these complexities with skill and energy; this is a young actress to watch.

Which world to live in is the deaf person's dilemma in THE TASTE OF SUNRISE. Maizie opts for the hearing world, with less than wonderful results, but she still clings gamely to her romantic dreams and notions (culled largely from movie magazines). Tuc, however, chooses to return home. It's a silent world here, an impoverished one, especially now that his father is dead and the farm sold off, but his favorite tree still stands and he can enjoy the feel of sunshine on his face, not to speak of the challenge of teaching Nell--and Mazie's illegitimate child--how to sign.

Zeder's touching drama was directed and produced with considerable skill. Having "shadow actors" as sign interpreters--they perform onstage and embody aspects of the play's characters--was an especially effective device. Talia Savren and Leigh Eskovitz were mostly responsible for this, but others in the ensemble (Gabriela Villaroel, April Shin, Kevin Jones and Melissa Simbolon) also made important contributions.

CSUN's theatre department can be reached at theatre@csun.edu