When playwright David Rush first began penning his drama of the cultural abyss that sucks up a young deaf man, he angered more than a few members of the deaf community. Rush, a professor at Southern Illinois University, can hear. The fact that he sought to create a play centering on the life of a deaf political activist enraged those who believed a hearing man had no business telling a deaf man's tale. While the playwright was doing research, an e-mail made the rounds of the deaf community urging people not to cooperate with him. If only those angered by Rush's presumption could see the final product, now in its world premiere at Stage Left Theatre Company.
The galvanizing Police Deaf Near Far speaks volumes--sometimes literally, sometimes figuratively--about the lethal nature of cultural divides. Police Deaf Near Far focuses on the biases and prejudices of "deafies" (as deaf people sometimes call themselves) and "hearies." But the bones of the story could just as easily be fleshed out to dramatize the walls between races, age groups, or religious sects.
Thoughtfully directed by Drew Martin for Stage Left, Police Deaf Near Far opens with a chilling bit of silent black and white video footage: someone in the grainy picture is gesturing angrily while a darker figure reaches for a gun. Barely visible as an ominous gray blob, the gun is brandished, the man who was gesturing jerks backward and lurches toward the asphalt. It is a confusing and troubling scene, made all the more so by its intentionally blurry edges and by the heavy silence that surrounds it. In action movies, guns make a cartoonish, almost reassuring, racket. Here, there is no noise, only damage.
It was the 1996 death of Eric Smith, age 22, a deaf man who was shot by a Forest View police officer, which served as the inspiration for Rush's drama. But Police Deaf Near Far is definitely not the story of Smith. It is the story of Martin "Stinger" Cronin, an angry deaf man in his early 30s, scarred by a childhood of forced "mainstreaming." Stinger, the audience learns early on, is belligerently hostile towards the hearing population. In one especially moving passage, he talks about a deaf boy humiliated by a misguided attempt at mainstreaming; that is, raising and educating deaf children to adapt to the hearing world.
Stinger believes mainstreaming is, at best, an insult to the millions of deaf people in the world. His idea is provocative but eminently logical: deaf culture--a culture based on the unique beauty of American Sign Language--is as valid and vital as hearing culture. Eventually, Stinger's bitter ferocity leads to his death in a physical confrontation with a police officer, but not before the play asks why hearing people never have to adapt to deaf ways; why it always must be the deaf who are forced like square pegs into round holes.
Stage Left's production asks the questions with powerful eloquence, articulated through the strong cast director Martin has assembled. As Stinger, Robert Schleifer signs the role while it is voiced by Kevin Marquette. This set-up is difficult to maneuver convincingly because two people must merge in a depiction of one character, and because they've got to do it simultaneously. In Police Deaf Near Far, the integration works beautifully.
Schleifer is a passionately expressive actor who happens to be deaf. Marquette--dressed all in black and often speaking from the periphery of the playing space--speaks Stinger's words without distracting from Schleifer's physical characterization. Playing opposite Schleifer is Pat Parks as Roberta, the hearing woman Stinger glibly "puts the moves on" at a political meeting. She's an interpreter who is hard-pressed to resist his charm, even though she recognizes a pick-up line when she sees one. As the police officer, Peter Banterra delivers a nuanced performance as a career cop whose best judgment results in tragedy, although Rush assigns no specific blame for the shooting. There are no villains in this story, except for a large societal majority that desperately needs to be educated about deaf culture.