The National Theater of the Deaf, Breaking the silence barrier

The triumph of man's need -- and determination -- to express himself is manifested impressibly in one of the most inspired -- and inspiring -- television programs of the year.

"The Silken Tent" (PBS, Wednesday, 9:30-10 p.m., check local listings for premiere and repeats) is the first in a planned series exploring the efforts of the National Theater of the Deaf at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center to break the silence barriers of spoken language.

"She is as in a field a silken ten/at midday when a sunny summer breeze has dried the dew . . . ," Robert Frost wrote after the passing of his wife. He explains the poem's significance in a letter to Louis Untermeyer, which is read on the program. With the aid of Jason Robards, and directed by Ed Waterstreet, the Theater of the Deaf company members actually build their own silk tent both literally and symbolically. Then they translate the poem into their own sign language, using their minds and bodies to choreograph Frost's words about the grace of a woman, "the sureness of her soul," comparing it to a silken tent.

Robards speaks the lines and the actors translate, compress, mime, and get to the very essence of the language, using their faces as well as their hands and arms to express the poem, perhaps even more vividly than the mere written words. Besides the sensibility of the poet, there is the sensitivity of the actors.

Says Robards sincerely, obviously moved by what he is experiencing: "Signing is much more expressive of Frost than what I'm sending. It is a great aid to me as an actor; I am learning new things all the time."

The program, I am informed by WGBH/Boston, from where the series originates, will be broadcast with closed captions, visible only to those hearing-impaired people who have special decoders attached to their TV sets. In a way, it is a double irony -- but what a marvelous experience it would be to view the program that way.

Aural language in this case might not even be essential -- sign language has a unique visual aspect all its own. Almost cinematically it allows for such things as close-ups, slow motion, reaction shots. Each person in this extraordinary troupe of deaf actors, one by one, reveals an amazing command of mime and the ability to condense complex language into simple symbolic and sometimes literal movement in a way that glorifies both the poet's language and their own language. In its own unique and amazingly sensitive way, signing is even more universal than the language of written words.

It is pure, and simple, calligraphy of the human spirit.

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