Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire, the setting of Thornton Wilder’s 1938 Pulitzer Prize-winning play “Our Town,” is a mythical place. Wilder positioned it as the quintessential small town, its universality undergirded by the specificity demanded in his script. While some of the stage conceits that were wildly experimental in his day are no longer unconventional, such as having the Stage Manager break the fourth wall to narrate action to the audience directly, what remains unusual about “Our Town” is its lack of a traditional set, and the way actors are required to mime the opening of doors and collecting of milk bottles rather than use physical props.
“The less seen, the more heard,” Wilder wrote. “The eye is the enemy of the ear in real drama.”
But the technical challenges posed by Wilder’s bare, “unencumbered stage” are magnified so that the eye is a crucial ally of the ear in the Pasadena Playhouse-Deaf West Theatre co-production of “Our Town” opening next week. Starring “Malcolm in the Middle” actress Jane Kaczmarek as the Stage Manager (a role filled in past productions by Spalding Gray, Hal Holbrook and Paul Newman, among others), rehearsals for this version of the iconic piece have been intense for hearing and deaf actors alike.
“I’m not sure everybody realized in the beginning that deaf actors have to look at each other all the time to hear what’s being said, what’s being signed to each other,” Kaczmarek says. “One of the main things in this play Emily says is, ‘Can’t we just look at each other?’ You have a lot of actors looking at each other because of the signing, yet the theme of the play is that we don’t have time to look at each other.”
The character who most embodies the soul of “Our Town” is Emily Webb, a curious schoolgirl and eventual bride portrayed by deaf actress Sandra Mae Frank, who also appeared in Deaf West Theatre’s rapturously reviewed “Spring Awakening.” Toward play’s end, Emily wonders: “Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it — every, every minute?” Staging that has required script tweaks.
“Instead of hearing, you have to see [Emily’s death],” Frank explains through interpreter Alan Witteborg. “So the memories of occurrences are being shown and we actually see it. When there is eye contact that means we are in contact. … If it’s real life, if you’re not looking at me, are you really listening to me?”
She’s memorized other actors’ lines “just to be safe,” Frank says, and relies on key light cues to guide her through dialogue she cannot hear.
“There are three different colors, and I have to memorize which color is somebody else’s and which color is mine, and I have to stay in character and think about the entire scene happening at the same time,” she says. “A hearing person can just hear and feel the energy going on and use that and respond to it. I have to visualize and see it in my mind’s eye, and once the light goes off then it’s my line, and then the scene happens, and the light goes off again, my line. It’s tough, but it’s going. It’s almost like musical [cues].”
Kaczmarek describes rehearsing in front of a huge mirror alongside three deaf actors portraying the Stage Manager, to sync up the rhythms of American Sign Language and spoken English.
“ASL is a totally different language than English,” Kaczmarek says. “It’s the biggest challenge, really. We had to go through every line of this play and come up with a line that is of similar length to the English line written. The deaf Stage Manager will sign while I speak, and we just make sure that each of our sentences and paragraphs starts and ends at the same time. I can obviously hear and I know enough signs so I can see if that were off, but my deaf counterpart can’t hear so doesn’t know where I am. So we have to be one. …
“The trick is when we’re standing side by side, to be sure we are breathing, saying the line, and stopping the line together. [Laughs] It’s completely technical. It’s given it a lot more color, doing it this way. Signing is so beautiful.”
Signing is quite different from the miming required — a distinction that needed to be explained to hearing cast members.
“There’s a big difference in the energy of the body and the facial expressions and the delivery, while a hearing speaker can hear the emotion in the voice, from the vocal cords, can hear the intonation,” Frank says. “When it comes to deaf people, it revolves around the hands, the grammar and the face expressions, and the grammar itself is your entire body, so you can see that your hands, your body, and the energy really impacts and affects the movement of speech.”
Set in 1901, 1904 and 1913, “Our Town” offers enduring commentary about nature and the cycles and substance of life. There are at least 70 translations of the three-act play, according to Wilder biographer Penelope Niven, and over the past 80 years it has been produced for film, radio, television and the stage (including 1989’s Tony Award-winning Broadway revival), and has been performed by many a high school drama club (one of which inspired Scott Hamilton Kennedy’s 2002 documentary “OT: Our Town”). “Our Town” is not inherently sentimental, though Wilder reportedly lamented how productions undercut his script’s hard simplicity.
To Frank, “Our Town” is “very relatable to today” with technology’s advance: “We don’t notice life,” she says. “We focus on our phones, we focus on social media, we focus on hashtags, tweets.”
What Kaczmarek calls the play’s “message of the sacred ordinary” has become more meaningful during a year when the 61-year-old Pasadena resident and mother of three has ditched “complicated friendships” and TV, and refocused her energies on theater, which she has loved since acting in her first play at age 15. Discussing the relevance of “Our Town,” she draws connections to George Saunders’ bestselling novel “Lincoln in the Bardo” and T.S. Eliot’s classic poem “Little Gidding” (“And the end of all our exploring/ Will be to arrive where we started/ And know the place for the first time”).
“I always made a great living because of television,” she says. “But after a really exhausting albeit tremendously successful television series, you know, I had three babies in five years, I was nursing, I was pumping milk, I was memorizing lines, I was yelling at those children on ‘Malcolm in the Middle.’ My husband was doing ‘The West Wing’ and he was never home for seven years, and you know what? At the end of that time the marriage was over. So it was a real ‘be careful what you wish for.’ Suddenly I was a single mother. You can analyze those things forever, but the truth is it just was over.”
Recognizing she was afraid to step into a new life of “doing theater, letting my hair go gray and stop looking for a man to complete me” was “an amazing revelation,” she says.
“It’s kind of like Emily in the grave scene: ‘How can I leave, that’s the only life I knew?’ The dead don’t know what’s coming next. Their heads are no longer filled with what life was. Oh, God, that line of the Stage Manager’s: ‘They get weaned away from the earth.’ And the sign that my deaf cohort does on ‘weaned away’ — it’s so beautiful. It’s just so, so beautiful.”
“Our Town” at Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena, from 8 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 26, through Sunday, Oct. 22; $25-$92. Info: (626) 356-7529. pasadenaplayhouse.org, deafwest.org, thorntonwilder.com