Friday, March 20, 2015

Review by Sheila Barth: The Taste of Sunrise

Emerson Stage, Central Square Theater and Wheelock Family Theatre have joined together to present author Suzan Zeder’s The Ware Trilogy. Although I missed Emerson Stage’s production of the first play, “Mother Hicks,” in February, I can’t imagine it could  surpass Wheelock’s sensitive, exquisite, poetic performance of “The Taste of Sunrise,” part II of Zeder’s dramatic triptych. The final play, “The Edge of Peace,” will be performed at Central Square Theater in April. They’re interconnected, but each play can stand on its own merit.

For the first time, Zeder’s trilogy is being produced sequentially in one area, enabling theatergoers to progress with the tale of Tuc, a deaf man, outcast Nell Hicks, and a foundling child, Girl.

Nell Hicks (Brittany Rolfs), a mysterious woman, cures with singing spells, herbs and potions. The Ware villagers think she’s a witch, because whomever she cures ends up afflicted or dead, they say.

In “The Taste of Sunrise,” directed by Wendy Lement and also Kristin Johnson, we progress with Tuc, from 1917 to 1928, from his infancy, becoming motherless, and being stricken deaf after a bout with scarlet fever, to his becoming an outcast; his experiences at a prestigious deaf school; loss of his father; and his return home.

Although you can’t tell, several ensemble actors, (along with a co-director, a co-assistant director, and the lighting designer) are Deaf. They blend beautifully with their hearing counterparts in this large cast, including popular Boston stars Cliff Odle, as Tuc’s loving father; Sirena Abalian, and Lewis D. Wheeler, portraying various roles and voices.

Amidst award-winning designer Janie E. Howland’s sun-drenched rustic background and set, the cast ensures every word is captured, with actor-narrators, sign interpreters, and the dialogue and stage direction beamed on the backdrop.

Roger J. Moore’s realistic sound effects and Annie Wiegand’s sensitive lighting capture changes in time, place and mood. Patricia Manalo Bocknak”s stunning choreography enhances dramatic scenes.

In the opening scene, we are engulfed in silence. Actors flutter their hands like birds, ripple them like running water, and wave like the wind. A lone narrator (Ethan Hermanson) speaks from the background, while upstage, Elbert Joseph, a superlative, deaf, Caribbean-American young actor, owns the spotlight, delivering a gut-wrenching, mesmerizing performance as the main character, “Tuc”.

Tuc’s frustration at people’s intolerance, misjudgment, and inability to understand him during his various stages, are disturbing, frightening, evoking our sympathy.

Dr. Alexis Graham, (Donna Sorbello), a well-intended teacher at the School for the Deaf, convinces Tuc’s loving father to let the boy leave his peaceful, verdant surroundings, where he communes with the wind, river, birds, bees, and all forms of nature, to attend the faraway residential school.

Watching Tuc’s fear, isolation and gloom dissipate when he meets Maizie, (Amanda Collins) a teen-age cleaning girl at the school, is heartwarming. Maizie can hear, but her parents are deaf, so she says she is, too, “inside”. She and her parents work menial jobs at the school, but starstruck Maizie loves movies, mentally mingling them with reality, and her hopes for the future.

Tuc’s joy reverberates while playacting with Maizie, fellow student Roscoe (superb Deaf actor Matthew J. Schwartz), and his Deaf classmates, until Superintendent Dr. Grindly Mann (Daniel Bolton) shatters their fun by admonishing then for using sign language instead of their words. He raps them on the hands with a ruler and imposes stricter discipline on a defiant Roscoe and the followers.

Nevertheless, Tuc flourishes at the school, learning to communicate with his peers. He eagerly returns home for the summer to demonstrate his new skills, but his enthusiasm dissipates- his father can’t understand him. Throughout Tuc and his father’s life changes, Cliff Odle as Jonas Tucker is deeply moving.

Tuc, Nell Hicks, Maizie, and Jonas Tucker’s disappointments and losses in their imperfect world are depressing, yet their journey promises hope, a touch- and taste- of sunrise at the end.

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