Most everyone here has heard tales of the deaf community that lived in Chilmark decades ago. For many, the thought of that close-knit haven of families and neighbors communicating in sign language has a peaceful, old-fashioned, romantic aura. A safe little seaside community set apart from the noise and troubles of the world comes to mind.
The unique and moving drama “Chilmark,” making its world premiere at the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse, suggests that all was not always so peaceful and safe in that up-Island community, that there were times when the independence, freedom, and lifestyle that the townspeople cherished was at risk, holding on to it a hard-fought battle.
Beyond the engrossing and touching story of the charming, idiosyncratic, and closely bound characters, the play resonates with the plight and outrage of any people who are different from others in any way, any place, any time.
Catherine Rush wrote and directs the play that echoes themes she raised in her earlier drama, “This Island Alone,” co-written by her husband Adrian Blue.
Indeed, our first view of the 1885 up-Island town is that imagined peaceful refuge. There’s the weathered, shingled general store, faded lobster pots and kegs, two locals relaxing on the wide veranda while Captain Smith, the town storyteller, weaves a tale of piracy, storms, and tragedy.
As Capt. Nathaniel Smith, striking, upstanding, dramatic, a little mysterious, Robert DeMayo does literally weave the saga, his arms, hands, fingers dancing through the air as he signs. Though we hear the narrator speaking, we can nearly read the words from his fingers.
“It’s got to have a happy ending, nobody likes sad stories!” intones Elizabeth Athearn drily, rocking on the porch. Played by Lisa Dennett, she is the quintessential New England matron, with her few brusque words, brooking no nonsense, possessing practical homemaking skills and a warm heart underneath it all.
Ezra Lambert, storekeeper, staunch town leader, faithful friend to Smith, and devoted widowed father to Anne, joins in the amiable teasing. As they brainstorm happy endings, giggles are heard down the beach, giggles that presage unfamiliar strife and painful division that is far from laughable.
Flouncing in fashionably, dark hair in a bun, her ruffled dress swirling, Sarah Hall, an honored guest from Boston, soon becomes a pariah. Liz Michael Hartford nimbly morphs from being Anne’s newfound girly pal into a shrill, cruelly opinionated aggressor, fiercely determined to get her own way no matter who gets hurt.
Kudos to the petite, pretty, and otherwise personable Hartford, a Playhouse regular from Summer Stars, amphitheatre shows, and Shakespeare for the Masses, for her ability to infuriate and make us dislike her so vehemently.
Anne has visions of beginning a new town school where children can learn together, both deaf and hearing. Sarah has ideas for a school too, but they’re radically different, ideas that could tear away at foundations of this community.
The town meeting called to hear the school presentation is creatively staged so audience is included. Straight chairs face into the theatre. Speakers call opinions from rear rows. By now, we audience members do feel involved, outraged, scared, and anxious to get this nasty interloper off our quiet Island.
“I’m just hoping it will all blow over,” says Ezra, and we breathe a sigh of relief with him as life returns to normal, though doubts still lurk and loom.
Ashley Ivey as Ezra touches us with his courage and sense of responsibility to protect his town and family. He tirelessly reassures others even as we detect the doubts and fears that plague him.
In a poignant moment he consoles Anne, her confidence undermined by Sarah’s accusations, with words of parental comfort that are heartbreakingly universal: “There’s nothing defective about you, you are my perfect daughter!”
There are tough questions to be answered, futures hanging in the balance. But for now it’s back to the easy rhythms of clamming on the shore, sharing a family chowder recipe, Anne’s dreams of a new school, and maybe even motherhood.
A late bloomer, reserved, not quite sure of herself, Casey Johnson-Pasqua’s Anne is caught between family traditions and the poisonous rhetoric of her onetime friend. But once she hurls herself into the fray with uncharacteristic energy and spunk, determined to save her community, she draws cheers from townsfolk and audience alike.
Can you say, “You go girl!” in sign language?
Fascinating for the hearing audience, some of the actors are deaf; some speak, some don’t. All sign, the town custom in those days that allowed everyone to communicate with one another. It takes careful reading of biographical notes to be sure who on stage is and is not deaf — a thought-provoking lesson!
There is a learning experience around every corner for those of us unfamiliar with the world of deaf people. Who knew that esteemed inventor Alexander Graham Bell, Sarah’s mentor, had a deaf wife, and promulgated bitterly judgmental commentary on the inferiority of the deaf in efforts to revolutionize their education?
Few realize that our deaf up-Island neighbors devised their own unique signing, that many deaf had to attend school off-Island, wrenched from their families. But it comes as no surprise that as Vineyarders do, they stuck together and cared for one another, even when they did not agree.
But don’t go see this play to learn about Chilmark’s history, explore deafness, bone up on your sign language or show sympathies for an often misunderstood minority. Just go to see a touching and thought-provoking story of a community of stalwart, stubborn, feisty folks fighting for their rights, independence, and dignity.
Come to see talented actors — some deaf, some hearing — step into their roles so fully they move us to anger, to tears, to hilarity. And don’t be surprised to find that you are understanding the signs and gestures as easily as the spoken words. Then, home at your computer, you may even Google Alexander Graham Bell, the American School for the Deaf, or search for lessons in American Sign Language.
“Chilmark” continues at the M.V. Playhouse through Sept. 8. Visit mvplayhouse.org for more information.