Theme overwhelms storytelling in Stephen Sachs’ play, “Open Window,” commissioned by Deaf West Theater and now receiving its premiere at the Pasadena Playhouse. In a play about deaf characters, performed by deaf actors, Sachs explores the nature of language, but even the passionate performances can’t make up for Sachs’ abandonment of a compelling premise for repetitive thematic ponderings and lackluster narrative cliches.
The play begins with the discovery of a young man, a “wild child,” in a basement. As a baby, he was believed to be mentally disabled when in truth he was deaf. When the institution housing him closed, his father chained him to a pipe and left him in solitude. Twelve years later, he is found, with the corpse of his strangled father next to him. He has never learned any language.
Enter Rachel (Linda Bove), a renowned linguist and cognitive scientist. She is determined to teach the young man (Chris B. Corrigan) at least a little sign language before he is brought before a judge, who will determine whether he is competent to stand trial for killing his father.
But she must do battle with young psychologist Susan (Shoshannah Stern), who believes the patient — she names him Cal, after Caliban from Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” — needs human comfort far more than language. These characters, and the actors who portray them, are all deaf. Their American Sign Language is translated vocally by other performers, who also serve as occasional narrators, positioned above the set.
The initial intrigue exhausts itself relatively early. It’s as if Sachs expended too much effort on what he didn’t want this play to be. He doesn’t, for example, want it to be a sentimentalized story of heroically “overcoming” a disability like “The Miracle Worker.” Sachs, in his program notes, insists that he didn’t want the play to be about the agonies of deafness. Instead, he was determined to focus on deaf characters who are accomplished professionals. He certainly does this, but it’s at the expense of Cal.
While Corrigan, who gives a fine physical performance, is onstage throughout, his character is shunted to the periphery of the plot. He becomes mere subject for clinical discussions of language — can you understand an idea if you don’t know language? Even more prominently, Cal’s tragedy propels Rachel to deal with the emotional trauma of her son’s kidnapping.
By trying to avoid the typical patterns of dramas that deal with deaf characters, Sachs writes his way right into other predictable and uninvolving cliches. Cal’s future becomes not much more than an afterthought.
There’s no doubt that Deaf West has been among the most exciting legit producers in L.A. in recent years. Its breakthrough production of “Oliver!” was nearly as good as the vivacious “Big River” that went to Broadway and on to a national tour. Its shows have been extremely theatrical, even lyrical and it has given opportunities to fine performers, including Bove and Stern, a couple of capable actors who give their all.
Unfortunately, “Open Window” is a middling, plain, labored piece of work. Eric Simonson’s direction proves unimaginative, unable to locate and lift the deeper emotional moments. There’s no variation to the rhythm of the translated dialogue, which allows a lulling flatness to settle in. Even the set design, from the talented Chris Barreca, is too restrained by the realism of the institutional setting, antiseptic and ugly.