At a memorial service on the beach, (from left) Mrs. Look (Katherine Diamond), Ben Lambert (Darren Frazier), Ephraim Skiffe (John Basinger), Mrs. Tilton (Norma Tourangeau), and (seated) Anne Tilton (Alexandria Wailes) are all signing "heaven." Photos by Ralph Stewart
Loud and clear
A part of our Island's history is currently on stage at the Vineyard Playhouse and everyone should hear it. "Who even knows who can hear and who can't," says Mrs. Look, played by Katherine Diamond. By Act I, scene 4, when her comment is made, the audience can't really answer that question with any certainty. And that is what makes this play an important piece of theatre and Island history.
Hearing and listening
The story revolves around the deaf community on the Island in the 1800s. In the opening scene, the deaf and hearing communities live comfortably, side by side, their differences noticeable only to outsiders such as the audience. We are brought into the world of sign language, an immersion that is quick and also surprisingly easy to grasp, a credit to both director and cast.
Isaiah Stone (Uriel Menson) and Anne Tilton (Alexandria Wailes) attend the Chilmark Town Meeting.
Two strangers, Mr. Stone and his teenage son, Percy, have taken up residence in their family's homestead in Chilmark, coming to the Island from New Bedford. The two are grieving Mrs. Stone's recent death in very different ways. Percy takes to the Island immediately, sign language and all, while Mr. Stone keeps a cold distance. We are never told why the two have not visited the Island more often, but Mr. Stone's aversion to the deaf community may be a clue.
Percy strikes up a friendship and courts Anne Tilton, the beautiful daughter of the town's shopkeeper, Mrs. Tilton. The two enjoy wonderful times together in spite of vehement objections by Percy's father.
In some plays, climactic moments come after much distant rumbling, like a train coming down a track, the audience waiting, the rhythm building. In "This Island Alone" the point of no return happens simply, as though a pebble is tossed into a pond. In this case the pebble causes a tsunami and life on the Island will never be the same again.
Solid as a stone
The cast of seven tells the story in both spoken language and sign language. Each character is comfortable signing, except Mr. Stone, who, even in an emergency, keeps his hands glued to his side and shouts in a feeble attempt to be understood.
Anne Tilton (Alexandria Wailes) in "This Island Alone" at the Vineyard Playhouse.
Katherine Diamond plays Mrs. Look as a kindly woman, gossipy and full of life. I believe, dressed in modern clothes, her character would fit right in at the Chilmark Public Library or the Up-Island Council on Aging. I loved watching her perform, including the final disturbing tableau.
Mr. Ephrim Skiffe is played by John Basinger. Like Mrs. Look, he portrays this Island character to a tee. I enjoy watching an actor work when it doesn't seem like work at all. Mr. Basinger is that kind of actor. He brings an ease and simplicity to the role that compliments the directing style.
Norma Tourageau plays shopkeeper Mrs. Tilton as though she were working at Alley's General Store. Her performance is so believable you half expect a tourist to sidle up and buy a copy of the New York Times from her. Ms. Tourageau was part of the original project that brought "This Island Alone" to its world premiere.
Alexandria Wailes brings beauty and light to the character of Anne Tilton. A dancer, Ms. Wailes's signing is poetry. The audience can hear the music in her performance. Her face during the memorial service scene on the beach is a picture of sadness. It will be hard for you to get her image out of your head. You won't want to.
Playing a bad guy can be fun, but if I meet actor Uriel Menson on Main Street in Vineyard Haven I might be tempted to give him a piece of my mind at which point Mr. Menson would probably say, "You do realize I was just playing a role. I'm not really a bad guy." As Isaiah Stone, the character that sets in motion the event that changes everything, Mr. Menson is the best bad guy around. He plays Mr. Stone as a typical old-time New Englander without making him caricature.
Paul L. Coffey plays Percy Stone with an energy that adds a nice counter-balance to the play. He may be an outsider, but his character loves the Island and its people. Mr. Coffey gives the audience a full character. We want Percy to succeed.
Percy Stone (Paul L. Coffey) enthusiastically embraces Island life.
"This Island Alone" is directed by Adrian Blue, assisted by Catherine Rush. The two, who also wrote the play, have been working on this production for a few years. I have seen the two previous shows, "The Island Project" and "A Nice Place To Live," both works in progress leading up to this play. What a great experience it has been for me as an audience member to be in on the process of the plays' development.
Mr. Blue uses a subtle hand to direct and this adds to our understanding of the material. You can't have actors moving all around while they are signing. Island audiences probably don't have much experience with signing actors, but Mr. Blue's direction has made it very easy for us.
The set, designed by Stephen M. Zablotny, provides just the right feel. Mr. Zablotny knows the playhouse space and always uses it to its best advantage. The whole production team has enhanced the script by not overproducing, allowing the simple, compelling story to shine through.
"This Island Alone" is an early summer gift, like a warm breeze. Sit back and enjoy it.
"This Island Alone," runs Tuesday through Saturday, until July 7. Times and ticket prices vary. For more information, call 508-696-6300 or visit www.vineyardplayhouse.org.