Deaf West Theatre and Thornton Wilder prove a match made in heaven as Pasadena Playhouse debuts an exquisite seventy-ninth anniversary revival of Wilder’s classic bit of Americana, Our Town, as it has quite literally never been staged before.

About half of its cast are deaf or hearing impaired, and rather than speak their lines as Wilder first wrote them, they do so in American Sign Language while a similarly garbed hearing actor often just a few feet away provides a simultaneous spoken “translation” for audience members not fluent in ASL.

As for the other half, the hearing/speaking half, these actors both speak and sign their words, all of the above accomplished so seamlessly under Sheryl Kaller’s direction that it is often hard to remember which half of the cast is which.

Not only does this blur the lines and bridge the gap between communities not always in communication, doing theater the Deaf West way provides deaf and hearing impaired actors the opportunity to play roles they might otherwise not be offered and deaf audiences the opportunity to experience theater that speaks directly to them, in their own language, seated beside hearing theatergoers sharing more or less the same transformative experience.

Traditionally, the Deaf West approach has been to cast straight plays with all roles played by signing deaf actors as hearing actors voice their lines unobtrusively “from the wings,” and musicals with the half-and-half mix described above.

Our Town opts for the example set in the L.A.-to-Broadway musical smashes Big River and Spring Awakening, with Mrs. Webb (Annika Marks), Dr. Gibbs (Jud Williford), and George Gibbs (Deric Augustine) speaking and signing and Mrs. Gibbs (Alexandria Wailes and Marie-France Arcilla), Mr. Webb (Russell Harvard and Leonard Kelly-Young), and Emily Webb (Sandra Mae Frank and Sharon Pierre-Louis) partner-cast, the former of each more prominently than the latter, but playing the same role with a single shared voice.

The result is quite extraordinary, both for lead performers and for featured players Harold Foxx and David Gautreaux as Howie Newsome, Troy Kotsur and Gautreaux as choir director Simon Stinson, and Amanda McDonough and Pierre-Louis as Rebecca Gibbs, and for Dot Marie-Jones as Mrs. Soames and On Shiu as Joe Crowell, Jr. and Sam Craig.

Lastly, in a twist on Deaf West tradition, Stage Manager Jane Kaczmarek speaks her lines as Harvard, Kotsur, and Wailes alternate as her signing partners.

The universality of Wilder’s very specific look at early 20th-century small-town New England has rarely if ever been more evident than it is on the Pasadena Playhouse stage, for not only is the Deaf West cast a mix of hearing and non-hearing actors, few Our Towns have featured as color-blind an ensemble as this one.

Kaller’s direction could not be more inspired, spiced with tasty twists along the way, as when Stage Manager Kaczmarek-&-Kotsur inquires about the whereabouts of Grover’s Corners expert Professor Willard only to have Kotsur morph into the role in the blink of an eye with Kelly-Young providing his speaking voice.

Scenic designer David Meyer follows Wilder’s stage directions to the letter (about the only scenery you’ll get are a dozen or so straight back chairs, a couple of ladders on rollers, and some rigging hanging down from the rafters) but does so with particular flair, and here too Kaller’s brilliance shines. The rhythmic banging of chairs into place echoes actors’ foot stomps to catch attention when a shout could not be heard, and the two ladders, standing in for George and Emily’s across-the-yard bedroom windows, start to spin round each other the way it must feel for teens in love. And that’s just the tip of the directorial iceberg.

Jared A. Sayeg lights Mayer’s set in ever varied patterns of color and dreamlike effects, Ann Closs Farley’s gorgeously understated costumes display a minute attention to detail, and Leon Rothenberg and Jonathan Burke’s sound design adds dramatic impact every step of the way, with choreographer David Dorfman’s electrifying movement completing the production design mix.

Aside from Kaczmarek, shaky on her lines despite virtually no need to sign, there’s not a weak link in the Deaf West cast. Frank-&-Pierre-Louis and Augustine could not make for a more enchanting pair of young lovers, Wailes-&-Arcilla and Marks are mothers every child wishes he or she could call Mom and the same can be said for salt-of-the-earth Dads Harvard-&-Kelly-Young and Williford.

Even the smallest roles (Jones’s deliciously dithery wedding-loving busybody, Foxx-&-Gautreaux’s folksy milkman, Shiu’s spunky paperboy and town returnee, and McDonough-&-Pierre-Louis’s feisty Rebecca, Kotsur-&-Gautreaux’s walking Grover’s Corner encyclopedia and their drunken-wreck choir director born about a century too soon to live his life out-and-proud) are finely-tuned gems.

Marco Gutierrez and Natasha Ofili complete the absolutely splendid cast, whose hearing members merit kudos for learning ASL and deaf members earn equal cheers for giving hearing audiences a taste of what it’s like to understand sign.

Joshua Castille and Charles Katz are ASL masters. Srđa Vasiljević is associate director. Jenny Slattery is production stage manager and Jessica R. Aguilar is stage manager. Additional program credits are shared by Joe Witt (general manager), Brad Enlow (technical director), and Chris Cook (production manager). Casting is by Telsey+Company and Tiffany Little Canfield, CSA.

No matter how many times you’ve seen Thornton Wilder’s most enduring classic (and no matter if one too many school and/or community theater productions has had you swearing off any more), Pasadena Playhouse and Deaf West Theatre’s Our Town is absolutely, under no circumstances, to be missed.

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Pasadena Playhouse, 39 South El Molino Ave., Pasadena.

–Steven Stanley
October 1, 2017
Photos: Jenny Graham

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