The creators of Visible Language, an original, bilingual musical co-produced by WSC Avant Bard and Gallaudet University, do not want for ambition. Their show dramatizes a public debate between two prominent hearing citizens of D.C. during the 1890s, Alexander Graham Bell and Edward Miner Gallaudet, over how best to help deaf people function in the hearing world. Bell insisted they must be taught to speak and to read lips, arguing that Mabel, his wife, “easily passes for hearing” via her mastery of these techniques. Gallaudet maintained that American Sign Language (ASL) should prevail. In playwright Mary Resing’s scenario, Bell bets Gallaudet that he can teach particularly intelligent but doubly disadvantaged pupil, one Helen Keller, to speak in just a week using the “Visible Speech” system pioneered by his father.
The show is performed in English and ASL, and the 17-member cast intermingles hearing and deaf actors. Supertitles scroll across the ceiling of Ethan Sinnott’s bric a brac–crowded interior set, a necessity both for those who cannot sign and those who cannot hear. By design, it isn’t always an exact transliteration of the words and gestures being exchanged onstage—a clever device in a show about the problems of being understood. Unfortunately, it also tips off the audience when an actor skips a chunk of his scripted dialogue, which happened more than once at Friday’s shaky opening performance. A few of the hearing cast members struggled to speak and sign at the same pace while also acting, creating an arrhythmia particularly deadly to comic scenes.
The strongest turns came from a pair of deaf actors. Miranda Medugno makes Helen Keller an adventurous young woman full of impatience and curiosity. (A program note indicates that Medugno learned to speak for the first time for her role, an impressive feat.) Aarron Loggins brings a wounded dignity to the role of Ennals Adams, Jr., Gallaudet’s first black student. Harv Lester, a hearing actor who (according to that same program note) was not fluent in ASL prior to being cast, imbues Bell with the wooden superiority of an animatronic figure at an American history theme park, but his haughtiness suits Resing’s didactic, expository dialogue, wherein people refer to “the United States Congress” and Bell reminds his rival he invented the telephone.
(Actually, to imagine an insecure Bell inserting the telephone into every conversation is hilarious, but Resing doesn’t mine this opportunity for comedy. The funniest thing Bell says is, “Eugenics, you know, my dear,” and indeed, he was a proponent of selective breeding, even suggesting that two deaf people should not marry, a view that has now fallen even further out of favor than his landline phone.)
First-night jitters aside, it would be disingenuous to say the artists have solved all or even most of the daunting problems they’ve assigned themselves. This is uncommonly rich material for a musical, a form that comprises its own language, after all. Alas, the weakness of the songs, by Andy Welchel with lyrics by Resing, is Visible Language’s most glaring flaw.. An insipid number called “Nothing Sweller Than Helen Keller” recurs three times during the intermissionless, two-hour-plus show, while “Century of Innovation” ticks off a list of 19th-century inventions from the elevator to toilet tissue without deference to rhyme, significance, or chronology.
Still, there’s something mightily impressive about the fact that a show attempting to do something so unprecedented suffers from such prosaic problems. Lots of musicals go through painful, protracted gestation periods. The people who inspired Visible Language were no quitters, and its makers shouldn’t quit, either.
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