‘Visble Language’ at WSC Avant Bard

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This weekend at Gallaudet’s Eastman Studio Theatre WSC Avant Bard and Gallaudet University Theatre and Dance Program opened their world premiere, historically based musical, Visible Language. Aside from its historically rich text and beautifully complex bi-lingual style of presentation, Visible Language by Mary Resing also moves its audience with an urgent yearning to communicate beyond whatever barriers might exist, imagined or real.

The cast of 'Visible Language.' Photo by C. Stanley Photography.
The cast of ‘Visible Language.’ Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Many of the characters are based on real people. The tale it brings to life is the drama surrounding the birth of Gallaudet’s Teachers College and the clash between proponents of sign language and proponents of articulation and speech.

Although the details of the story can at times be cloudy and unnecessarily mysterious, its broad strokes nevertheless carry the audience along on their sweeping gestures. And its those sweeping gestures that are the heart and soul of the story.

Mr. Edward Miner Gallaudet, the nation’s strongest advocate for a sign language dominant pedagogy, wants to open a National Teachers’ College for the deaf. Mr. Alexander Graham Bell, recently made rich by his invention of the telephone, loves the idea as long as it is firmly rooted in the idea of teaching deaf students articulation and speech. Gallaudet agrees, just so long as sign language becomes the primary method of communication. And there is the rub.

The story is carried by Tom Baldridge who plays Gallaudet. He gives the founder of the university a determined passion and an edgy, sly smile. Bell, played magnanimously by Harv Lester, is his equal in passion even if he lacks Gallaudet’s manipulative manner. Together, their political battle in the Halls of Congress moves the story forward.

Those two famous characters are joined by yet another world renowned figure, a 15-year-old Helen Keller. Ms. Keller is portrayed with charisma and delightful abandon by Miranda Medugno. Her show stopping rendition of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “A Psalm of Life” brought the audience to its feet with emotion.

There are many other standout performances among the large cast of Gallaudet students and faculty and area actors.

Aarron Loggins gives a superb performance as Ennals Adams, Gallaudet’s first African American student; his portrayal of the determined young man and his quest to become a teacher is inspired and would no doubt make a play all by itself.

Kari Ginsberg captures the complexity of the vivacious Mabel Bell, wife of the acclaimed inventor of the telephone. She seemingly knows how to nudge her single-minded husband in her desired direction

Lisa Anne Bailey plays the little know feminist First Lady Caroline (Carrie) Harrison, wife of Benjamin Harrison, the 23rd President of the United States.

Rounding out the cast are Sarah Anne Sillers as Helen Keller’s dedicated teacher, Anne Sullivan; Lewis Freeman as Samuel Randall, the 33rd Speaker of the House of Representatives; Mikey Cafarelli as Joseph Cannon, another powerful member of the US House of Representatives; Jaclyn Young as Mary Cannon, the representative’s wife; Adam Bartley as Dr. Edward Fay, and Emily Stemper as Laura Redden Searing, the pioneering deaf poet and journalist.

An ensemble of Gallaudet student actors, John Cartwright II, Tyresha Collins, Brady Humphrey, and Jose Martinez play an entertaining group of young students, the rowdies amongst the nation’s power-brokers.

A six-person orchestra carried the lively score by Andy Welchel, with Alex Aucoin on drums, Mitch Bassman and Lindsay Williams on reeds, Meagan Frame and Rick Netherton of bass, and Elisa Rosman on piano and acting as conductor.

Director Tom Prewitt and Musical Director Elisa Rosman combine their talents well The songs, a beautifully choreographed combination of sung and signed lyrics (with a scrolling written text also playing), create a unique aesthetic tapestry, particularly in the large ensemble numbers.

The production team for Visible Language was led by Scenic Designer Ethan Sinnott, whose multi-level set provided a wonderful setting for the large cast. Lighting Designer Annie Wiegand kept our attention focused on the action while Costume Designer Elizabeth Ennis gave us an array of period gowns and suits. Choreographer Tyler Herman had all the dance numbers energetic and expressive.

Combining history with entertainment is never easy: it’s a balancing act, and Mary Resing has done an admirable job with Visible Language, particularly since that history has much to do with the Byzantine antics of the federal government. Fortunately, the human stories shine through the antics.

(l-r) Mikey Cafarelli, (Rep. Joseph Cannon), Miranda Medugno (Helen Keller), Sarah Anne Sillers (Anne Sullivan), and  Emily Stemper (Laura Redden Searing). Photo:by  C. Stanley Photography.
(l-r) Mikey Cafarelli, (Rep. Joseph Cannon), Miranda Medugno (Helen Keller), Sarah Anne Sillers (Anne Sullivan), and Emily Stemper (Laura Redden Searing). Photo:by C. Stanley Photography.

As Steven Pinker argues in his book, The Language Instinct, human beings have an innate capacity to communicate. Nay, more than a capacity–humans have a desire to reach beyond the subjective space of their own psyches. Whether that desire leads to a poetics of sign language or to a young Helen Keller standing before an audience of adults, signing and speaking, however roughly, the poetics of the written word, is of little consequence. For it is the desire to express that triumphs.

Language makes visible–nay, language makes felt, the hopes and dreams of each of us; and that desire is what makes Visible Language such a triumph.

Running Time: Approximately one hour and 45 minutes, with no intermission.

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Visible Language plays through November 23, 2014 at WSC Avant Bard performing at the Eastman Studio Theatre in the Elstad Annex of Gallaudet University – 800 Florida Avenue. NE, in Washington, DC. For tickets, purchase them online.