Rush is a hearing playwright, married to director-actor Adrian Blue, who is deaf. The play grew out of Rush's desire to portray a deaf-hearing relationship, but even more to explore human communication and connection — how we succeed or not, regardless of our native language — or perhaps because or in spite of it. The play employs several languages: American Sign Language, Visual Vernacular and spoken English, along with a spattering of peripheral tongues, dialects and forms of communication. Most of it is spoken, but a fair amount is silent as we observe signing.
Blue plays Jordan, a deaf theater director making a successful career in New York, who meets an eager, enthusiastic journalist named Haylee (Julie Fitzpatrick). Haylee knows a little ASL, and uses it to get past Jordan's domineering and irascible temperament. She manages to communicate on a basic level with Jordan, but mostly she challenges him intellectually and personally in ways others might not. And their relationship begins to blossom.
We see it unfold in a series of scenes meant to capture funny and/or ironic moments in a deaf person's experience of hearing culture, as well as the particular difficulties inherent in the budding romance. Some moments generate laughter; others, groans at the obvious stupidity or ignorance of the hearing world. Some 20 or so other characters are played by just two actors, Cassidy Brown and Mia Tagano, who change costumes, wigs, accents, personalities and attitudes in a New York minute. It is really through their gaffes and painful remarks that we see our cultural blindness to the world of the differently abled.
The heart of the play is the romance between Haylee and Jordan. On the surface, it's about their trials as a deaf-hearing couple; on deeper levels, it's about how they connect, or fail to, and their encounter as human beings. In that sense, there isn't much surprise here. If the element of deafness were removed, the love story might feel mundane. Jordan's deafness creates extra hurdles, but so does his personality. How much of that personality has been shaped by his experience as a deaf person, from childhood to present, isn't fully explored; it's merely hinted at in a scene with Jordan's parents and a few references. And how common is that experience? Having been given a glimpse, I wanted to know more.
The play also has an effect on hearing audience members that may or may not have been intended. Haylee notes that even the best lip-readers catch only about 40 percent of what is said, making it a very imperfect form of communication. As Jordan signed nearly all of his performance, I began to feel like a lip-reader, struggling at times to catch his meaning. Sometimes it's crystal clear; sometimes it's incomprehensible; sometimes some of the audience members laugh and the rest are in the dark. While frustrating, this is also consciousness-raising: a powerful immersion experience, reminding us how much we take verbal communication for granted.
In the end, the play gently prods us into awareness — the limits of words, in any language; the daunting task of communication; the navigation of the stormy waters of love; and more — sure to engender terrific post-show discussions.
Much of the play's success lies on the shoulders of its four actors, all of whom are excellent, all compelling and capable. It's fun to see Brown and Tagano switch characters with every scene, but they also bring depth and authenticity to each one. Fitzpatrick strikes just the right note, balanced between intellect and emotion, hope and resignation. Blue is superb as Jordan, conveying nuance and subtle effects with such ease. His solo flights of signing lead us softly into his world with warmth and sympathy, like a parent leading a child.
Set design by Jason Simms is a brilliant model of efficiency, with moving panels and simple set pieces to quickly effect scene changes. Paul Toben's beautiful light design complements set and mood, and Tanya Finkelstein's costuming, especially for Brown and Tagano, says volumes for each character.
See the play here, before it moves to other venues — then watch for it later on the Tonys.
What: "The Loudest Man on Earth," by Catherine Rush
Where: At the Lucie Stern Theatre at 1305 Middlefield Road in Palo Alto
When: Through Aug. 4, with 7:30 p.m. shows Tuesdays and Wednesdays; 8 p.m. shows Thursday through Saturday; 2 p.m. matinees on Saturdays and Sundays; 7 p.m. shows on Sundays.
Cost: Tickets are $19-$73.
Info: Go to theatreworks.org or call 650-463-1960.