Her message can be heard: `You are not lesser'

WRITING her words in the air, Academy Award winner Marlee Matlin shared an afternoon of silence with about 70 hearing-impaired youth, spelling out a rainbow of hope for each of them. The 21-year-old actress, who is deaf, came ``home'' last weekend to the Center on Deafness in Des Plaines, Ill. Here her stage days began 13 years ago, with her sign-language portrayal of Dorothy in ``The Wizard of Oz.'' That young girl has grown up, living in a spin of appearances ever since her first movie brought her an Oscar.

``Whatever dreams you have, keep on dreaming those dreams. Don't give up. Don't be afraid,'' she signs to her audience of youth and parents, while an interpreter speaks the words.

Ms. Matlin received the Best Actress award in March for her performance of a withdrawn deaf woman in ``Children of a Lesser God.'' This credential made her the stellar attraction at the center's 11th annual Creative Arts Festival, for talented hearing-impaired youths, aged 6 to early 20s, across the nation. Not all had seen her movie because of the R rating, but all knew of her accomplishments.

One by one the kids signed to her, occasionally talking; but their voiced words weren't always understood by outsiders. Some of these young people, whose impairments range from hard of hearing to profoundly deaf, have accomplished the feat of speech without ever having heard a spoken word. They queried her:

How did you feel when you won the Oscar?

I felt proud for all of us.

How do you feel seeing yourself in a movie?

At first, I didn't like it because I was watching myself too much. Was I fat? Was my hair OK? I wasn't watching the story. Then I watched the story, and I liked it.

Are you retired?

Do you think I'm an old lady? (In mock indignation, the reed-thin Matlin plants hands on hips she doesn't have. Then she signs that she leaves this week for Nicaragua to film ``Walker,'' with Ed Harris in the lead role of adventurer William Walker. Set in the late 1800s, the movie features Matlin as Walker's fianc'ee, a deaf woman.)

How much money did you get for making ``Children of a Lesser God?'' God''?

You and I can talk later. [And her laugh is audible.]

Do you ever use your voice?

Do I use my voice? Yeah! [She says this aloud.]

At this interplay, the audience goes up in a roar, aware from her lips and expression that she's truly talking. Though she has been deaf since infancy, her speech is intelligible. But she's selective as to when, where, and with whom she uses it.

Unlike the movie character she portrayed, Matlin is not withdrawn. She's a firecracker personality, and - even without sound - she put snap and crackle into her festival appearance. When communicating, her fingers race at allegro, but she also relies on her eyes, facial expressions, and body language to convey meanings - techniques taught to festival participants at workshops later in the day. Matlin has learned to use these alternative modes of expression with finesse, much as a superlative chef sprinkles his seasonings: not too much, not too little.

``There's something in her eyes. It doesn't matter if a person can hear or not, she can touch each one with her eyes,'' says Cecilia Strejc, director of the deafness center's creative arts program.

Indeed, the kids were caught up in this charisma, even though it sometimes didn't seem that way when distracting sounds rippled across the auditorium. Then, the realization: The deaf have no hearing ear to dictate the muffling of coughs and sneezes, feet movements, and utterances of delight. Noise is ``nothing'' when one's world is soundless.

Every inch of the actress - from black-rimmed glasses to studded, black cowboy boots - symbolized success to these young people. But Matlin let them know acting isn't all applause and Oscars. ``It was hard - but wonderful,'' she signs.

To her, the movie role meant more than a quick climb to the top of the heap. ``I have represented to all people that there is a deaf community [of performing artists] that has abilities, too, to work. There are others as well - the blind, other handicapped, what have you. The list goes on,'' signs the actress, whose success has honed her cause consciousness. She alludes briefly to other offers received recently, one for a speaking part. Then she signs, ``No more for now'' on this.

Matlin, who has two older brothers, grew up in the Chicago suburb of Morton Grove. During her elementary days in public schools, she spent Saturdays at the center, learning about drama and starring in the sign-language productions of ``Annie,'' ``Peter Pan,'' and ``Mary Poppins.'' Her Bat Mitzvah (a Jewish rite of passage) marked another milestone: She not only had to speak in English, but also in Hebrew in order to read from the Torah, explains her mother, Elizabeth Matlin, who attended the festival. (Her father, Donald Matlin, was working that day.)

While attending John Hersey High in suburban Arlington Heights, Matlin was channeled into the school's special program in academic subjects for the hearing-impaired. At that time, about 85 of Hersey's 2,000 students had hearing problems. ``She [Matlin] had both hearing and hearing-impaired friends,'' says Patricia Tedaldi, the program's director, at an earlier interview in the school. ``And she was a go-getter. She'd set a goal and go after it. She didn't give up easily.''

After graduation, Matlin enrolled at Harper Junior College, in Palatine, Ill. ``I studied, believe it or not, criminal justice,'' she signs. ``I was going to be a cop! Or probation officer. But I didn't do well. I didn't concentrate.'' And she's apologetic, as though the audience expected her to be a real-life Lacey and an Oscar winner.

``I had no thought of becoming an actress, because I thought [there were] no opportunities,'' she signs. But at 19, Matlin's acting avenue opened up when she landed the minor role of Lydia in the stage version of ``Children of a Lesser God,'' produced by Chicago's Immediate Theater. She then went on to compete for the lead of Sarah in the film version.

On awards night, whose congratulations thrilled her most? ``Elizabeth Taylor!'' Matlin signs, her expression adding the exclamation point. ``Wow. I was walking backstage ... all of a sudden, a tap on the shoulder. This woman is here. Nice. Beautiful woman. Gregory Peck I met, too.''

Between the festival's workshops, Matlin ``signed'' with kids of all ages in the halls and classrooms. ``She told me to learn, and that school is important,'' Chad Szatowski signs to an interpreter. ``And not to be scared up there [on stage]. That evening, the 13-year-old from Alpena, Mich., donned black suit and white face to mime in the talent competition.

Leonora Bonte of Douglas, Ariz., also latched on to Matlin's advice of ``don't be afraid,'' indicating that this is what she'll remember about the actress. At showtime, Leonora, 12, performed an interpretive dance. Like other deaf performers, she can't hear the instruments, but she's able to pick up the music's beat if the volume is loud and she practices.

In the evening, when most of the press had cleared away, Matlin seemed totally at home. She communicated with old friends via voice; she hugged others, held their babies, and enjoyed her chewing gum with the gusto of a teen-age cheerleader. During the talent show intermission, she fielded questions from anyone who stopped by the judges' table. When asked her favorite of all movies, she smiled. ``Why, of course, `The Wizard of Oz.'''

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