”You’re gonna need a lot more breath and sound through all this,” Jessica Wallenfels says. She’s talking to actor Daniela Chavez Camerena, amid rehearsals for a play called Richard & Jane & Dick & Sally, being presented by Portland State University’s School of Music & Theater. It’s the first evening out of the rehearsal room and onto the actual stage, so, as director, Wallenfels has a lot to start fine-tuning, including making sure all the dialogue comes across clearly.
“It’s hard, because you’re hunched over,” Wallenfels continues. Chavez Camerena, as the young girl Sally, has just finished a scene that takes place in her bedroom, where she has a conversation with her newly arrived aunt Jane. The problem is in her body posture while she sits cross-legged on the bed. “Maybe you can find some way to sit more upright, maybe wider or with one foot on the floor.”
Wallenfels demonstrates some postures that might help allow better voice projection, then says, “Let’s see if you can reach me here,” as she moves away to the center of the stage.
Chavez Camerena speaks one of Sally’s lines, focusing a little more on pushing the sound.
Wallenfels moves downstage to the edge of the performing space. “See if you can reach me here.” Chavez Camerena repeats the line, louder now.
From behind the back row of seats: “Great! See if you can reach me here!”
In a way, this is typical stuff, especially for work with student performers. The added wrinkle here, though, is that Chavez Camerena, like the character she portrays, is deaf. Coincidentally, the line she repeats during this exercise is, “I can talk like everyone else.”
The American theater, perhaps more so than the society as a whole, grapples these days with the complex and widespread inequities of American life. And while the social dynamics of race, gender and sex get most of the attention, more attention is being paid also to what are commonly called disabilities. For the deaf and hard of hearing, a robust subculture includes its own theater tradition, reaching back before the founding, in 1965, of the world’s first professional deaf theater company, the Connecticut-based National Theatre of the Deaf. But the inclusion of deaf theater performers and methods, as well as stories that speak to the issues and experiences of the deaf, remain uncommon in mainstream theater.
Richard & Jane & Dick & Sally, by the Midwestern playwright Noah Diaz, is a new and shining exception, seamlessly incorporating various perspectives on and of the deaf girl, Sally, amid a multi-layered examination of the emotional and social dynamics of a modern family. For Wallenfels, a guest director, and PSU, it’s both a big challenge and a wonderful opportunity. For audiences hearing and deaf, it’s an all-too-rare and valuable chance for a shared experience that opens us to new ways of thinking and feeling about one another. The show runs in Lincoln Hall through March 5.
Richard & Jane & Dick & Sally is still a new play, having had its premiere in early 2020 at Baltimore Center Stage (co-produced with Playwrights Realm). But Wallenfels traces her interest in finding such a vehicle back further, starting – however vaguely – in 2013, when she choreographed a production of Cymbeline at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Accessibility was an important goal for then-artistic director Bill Rauch, and he cast a terrific deaf actor, Howie Seago, in the play’s title role. As a result, Wallenfels worked alongside Monique Holt, who was credited as “sign-interpreted performance coach” for the show.
“It definitely shaped my awareness of the issue, and the challenges and the opportunities,” she recalls. “Having interpreters in the room, having different abilities in the room – at the time, I was kind of cowed by it. But I learned a lot.”
In 2015, the Los Angeles theater company Deaf West staged a revival of Spring Awakening on Broadway, integrating American Sign Language into the celebrated rock musical. “That was an intriguing idea to me,” Wallenfels says. A few years later, through a Regional Arts and Culture Council program for emerging arts leaders, she met Myles de Bastion, a deaf composer who uses technology that (as his website puts it) “enables sound to be experienced as light and vibration,” and began to think more about producing a play with music in a way that would make the music accessible and bring deaf and hearing audiences together. That became part of the “5 in 5 Initiative,” a plan launched – pre-pandemic – by her company Many Hats Collaboration to create five new works for the stage between 2019 and 2023.
Meanwhile, she spent time as a visiting assistant professor in the theater/dance department at Western Oregon University in Monmouth, where she “ended up poking my nose around” the school’s Division of Deaf Studies. By the time she began working as an adjunct at PSU, she’d heard about Justin Coleman, a senior instructor of American Sign Language who also has a masters degree in theater arts, and was on the hunt for a project they might work on together.
“We talked about a lot of options but were having trouble landing on something,” she says. “There’s not a lot of dramatic literature for the deaf that’s been mainstreamed.”
When they mentioned their dilemma to Solomon Weisbard, newly arrived assistant professor of scenic/lighting design, he told them about Richard & Jane & Dick & Sally. The play was slated to have its first New York production in 2020 and Weisbard was to be one of the designers – until, of course, Covid changed that plan among millions.
“I read it and I just fell in love with it – it’s so beautiful, and such a challenge for college students. Any experienced teacher would’ve said, ‘No way!’,” Wallenfels laughs.
Perched slightly left of realism, the play takes the iconography of childhood simplicity and innocence as a jumping-off point to show us a rather more complex picture of family and individuals, of what changes and what stays the same, even of life and death.
The playwright’s website describes it this way: “The classic ‘Dick & Jane’ characters from the ubiquitous 1950s children’s books are grown-up and struggling to stay afloat in a home fractured by grief. Newly widowed Dick (now going by Richard) is raising his two children, Dick Jr. and Sally (who’s deaf), while trying to manage a terminal illness that will inevitably leave them orphans. When he calls home his estranged sister, Jane, the family must reconcile and make peace with their shared and misunderstood histories before it’s time for him to go.”
Along with all that, Diaz stipulates about casting that “the family must be a non-homogenous combination of people of color” and that the actor playing Sally “must identify as d/Deaf/hard-of-hearing and should be comfortable with speaking.”
So the foremost challenge was finding their Sally.
“Justin has Daniela in his ASL minor program,” Wallenfels says. “He said he had a student who does, or can, speak as well as sign. So we met with Daniela. My fear was that it would be someone who hadn’t done theater before and I’d have to coerce them into it. In fact, it was the opposite – she’d done theater in high school and was really interested. And after she read the play, she said it was kind of close to her own experience: She had been raised with oralism [education and communication for the deaf using speech and lip reading rather than sign language], and didn’t start to learn to sign until she was about 11 and started to go to a school for the deaf.”
Having an appropriate performer to play helped them secure permission to produce the play, even though they weren’t able to entirely meet Diaz’ preference for a cast of color, eventually using white actors for a few of the roles.
“We believe that, perhaps, doing it imperfectly has more benefit than not doing it,” Wallenfels says. “And the playwright and his agent were okay with that; they understood the circumstances of doing it in an educational setting.”
Back in rehearsal, the room is busy. In addition to the half-dozen cast members and the requisite stage managers and tech operators, the show has a pair of stage signers, Emily Buss and Sami Yacob-Andrus, who’ve recently finished PSU’s ASL minor coursework and serve a prominent role, interpreting while on stage with the actors rather than off to the side. ASL interpreters David Bareford and Andrew Tolman, wearing cloth face masks fitted with clear plastic panels to allow their lips to remain visible, facilitate communication between Chavez Camerena and others.
Some of the issues that arise for the production reflect issues in Sally’s life within the play. Partly, these are matters of theatrical blocking, but also matters of etiquette. “Daniela needs to be face-and-shoulders toward the person she’s speaking to – and vice-versa,” Wallenfels points out. “Having someone walking away from her, or her walking away, or having someone speaking behind her – it’s a no-no.”
Then there are the adjustments to habit. Wallenfels, for instance, couldn’t just be “the usual director who yells from out of the dark,” she says afterward. “There were a couple of times that I had to run onstage and give the sign for ‘breath,’ then run back off stage! And she was great with it – she wants that kind of push.”
Throughout the process, Coleman, who serves as the production’s director of artistic sign language, is invaluable. For instance, at one point, Tolman recommends to Wallenfels that they avoid seating deaf patrons on the floor level or along the sides of the three-quarter-thrust staging, concerned that their view of performers’ faces will be blocked. Coleman steps over and quickly makes his own assessment, assuring them that it shouldn’t be a problem.
Come opening night, several audience members seated to the sides of the stage converse before the show in lively ASL. Once the show starts, signing is an integral, wonderfully expressive part, with Buss and Yacob-Andrus – often upstage center, not far behind the action – serving as a kind of harmony part (to use a rather audio-centric comparison) to the acting.
The plot is by no means all, or even primarily, about Sally. It’s funny, almost fanciful at times, easily relatable. But it’s also a buffet of grief – even the family dog, Spot (played by Olivia Henry, with a wonderful arc from exuberant to droopy), struggles with loss and isolation. Nate Linton threatens to steal the show as the boisterous, petulant but heartbreaking Dick Jr., who wears pieces of his dead mother’s clothing so that her spirit (the sweetly ethereal Myra Wang) will visit him. But the main line of tension is between Dick and Jane – even if he now insists on being called Richard. Jackson Toole balances the portrayal of a dying man’s waning energy alongside his fierce determination to prepare his kids for life without him. And Amy Bui shines as the loving yet cynical sister who realized that the suburban wonderland of their childhood never really was so rosy for girls.
Yet Sally’s part of the story is no mere token-diversity subplot. Believing that she must adapt to the hearing/speaking world in order to get along, Richard pushes her to practice sounding out the simple sentences from his old picture books. Dick Jr. calls her stupid and uses her deafness as an excuse to amp up standard sibling animosity. So she talks to Spot, who becomes invested in maintaining their special relationship. Only Jane, returning to the family home and meeting her for the first time, bothers to ask her what she wants.
Chavez Camerena builds Sally’s charm slowly, letting her humor and her strength emerge over time, surprising us as much as it does her family members. And she handles the tricky task of seeming to grow in both her speaking and signing skills as the play progresses.
Sally’s experience puts into sharp relief the same thing that everyone in the play is going through, what Wallenfels describes in her playbill director’s note as the “basic problem: how do we understand one another?”
Which, in a way, might be the question that all theater is trying to answer. Maybe that’s even what all human interaction ought to be aiming for.
So whether or not Sally really can “talk like everybody else,” maybe what matters is that – like this marvelous show – she can really communicate and make a connection.
- Portland State University’s Richard & Jane & Dick & Sally continues with performances at 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Friday, March 3-4, and 2 p.m. Saturday, March 5, at Lincoln Performance Hall, 1620 S.W. Park Ave., Portland. Ticket information here.