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`LESSER' SPEAKS VOLUMES.

Byline: Peggy Hager Staff Writer

LANCASTER - Kevin Mills began losing his hearing at age 8 due to a hereditary condition. He didn't meet a deaf person his age until he was 19, and it took several more years before he would admit that he needed to learn sign language.

Now he is playing a lead role in Cedar Street Theatre's ``Children of a Lesser God,'' about a teacher of lip reading at a school for the deaf who falls in love with a young deaf woman. They ultimately marry, but his insistence she learn to lip-read as well as use sign language leads to discord.

``The fact that James is hearing and uses speech as his primary mode of communication and that Sarah is deaf and uses ASL is not the major focus of the play,'' Mills said by e-mail.

``The fact (is) that the preconceived ideas and concepts they have about the other, the attitudes they carry that color their communication with and understanding of each other and especially, I think, James' self-absorption and vanity get in the way of achieving successful communication and understanding in this relationship until a truly catastrophic and cathartic moment is reached.''

Cedar Street's seven-member cast includes both hearing and nonhearing actors, communicating both by speech and by two forms of sign language, American and English. Two additional actresses, who director Kevin Treanor calls ``shadow signers,'' will interpret in sign language the spoken parts, for the benefit of deaf people in the audience.

Directing ``Children of a Lesser God'' required Treanor to dust off sign language skills he hadn't used for ten years. He took classes years ago because the subject interested him.

One of the highlights of preparing for the play for Treanor and assistant director Wendy Kaye Reuschling was a trip to the Deaf Expo in Long Beach two months ago.

``It was fabulous to walk into the Long Beach Convention Center and watch everybody sign,'' said Treanor.

Treanor has found himself unconsciously signing at work, much to the amusement of his co-workers at Northrop Grumman

``To be honest with you, at first people started to think that I was a little funny, and then I just shut my mouth and that's all I would do is sign. And now they simply accept the fact that I sign and I speak. And I found when I get excited, when I get angry or I'm under pressure, I tend to sign a little bit more. I don't know why,'' said Treanor.

Reuschling has been translating shows at the Palmdale Playhouse for the hearing-impaired for the past eight years. Working on the play has also affected her.

``I've found myself just unconsciously signing when I'm talking and I'll be trying to sign something to my mom or my sister and then I'll realize, oh, they don't know sign language,'' said Reuschling, laughing. ``And it's just because you're around all this signing all the time, I mean the hours of rehearsal, that it's something that starts to become natural.''

Helping direct has been a great experience, she said.

``I'm always at the other end of the spectrum of a play, seeing the finished product and interpreting the finished product, so I've never had the opportunity to be at the play from the beginning,'' said Reuschling. ``I love it. It's been great because I've been able to do my sign language with this and to meet these wonderful people that are actors and actresses. And the sign language, to be able to encompass that in one play, it's been great.''

Mills didn't become fully immersed in the deaf community until he enrolled at California State University, Northridge. He has been trying to master ASL ever since.

After seeing a 1979 production of ``Children,'' Mills was determined to learn acting himself and majored in theater at CSUN. In 1989, he played the role of Orin in ``Children'' in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. In Milwaukee, he got to meet Marlee Matlin, who starred in the 1986 movie version of the play and was a childhood friend of one of his Milwaukee co-stars.

Sarah is portrayed by Katherine Brandfield, who is deaf. Ironically, Brandfield spent a long time learning to speak well, but must play a scene where Sarah doesn't, which has proven to be a bit of a challenge for her.

The other deaf cast member is Michael Hart, a student at Highland High School, who plays the role of Orin Dennis. Treanor believes that Hart's ability to act will far outweigh any difficulty the audience may have in understanding his speech.

``He is deaf and he does not speak well and he is in a role where the actor really should speak well. However, he is such a fabulous actor that I think the audience will enjoy his performance regardless of the fact that they are going to have to work to understand him if they are going to rely on the ears. If they watch him they will understand him,'' Treanor said.

Actress Rachel Rose, who plays a student named Lydia, is not deaf but is fluent in sign language.

``Both of her parents are deaf so she's grown up with it and it's wonderful to watch,'' said Reuschling. ``Right from the beginning of her reading the part, you go, that's Lydia.''

The rest of the cast includes Tom Courteney as Franklin; Diana Friese as Mrs. Norman, Sarah's mother; Liane Roth as Edna Klein; and Laura Simonson and Sarah Clark as the shadow signers.

Part of the dynamics between the two lead characters is their use of two different forms of sign language: James signs in English and Sarah signs in American Sign Language.

``The truth is American Sign Language is a very visual language and it is important for us to show the stark comparison between signed English and ASL and we wanted to show both languages use very similar signs, but ASL is a completely different language. It follows a completely different context,'' explained Treanor.

``It has a completely different syntax and it's much more visual than lexicon, if you will. It doesn't use words as much as it uses signs for concepts and ideas.'' Because of the different emphasis that can be placed on ideas through sign language, there were many debates during production of the play as to how certain words would be illustrated.

``In the play, Sarah says that she can convey in one thought an image, an idea that would take 50 words to explain in English, and that is so true,'' said Reuschling. ``It is such a beautiful and expressive language that to me it is an easier way to display exactly what I feel than English is.''

Both Treanor and Reuschling believe that hearing audiences will have no problem understanding anything in the play because James says orally everything that Sarah Norman signs.

``It's just this wonderful story, that even if you don't know any sign language, it's one of those things that just opens your eyes and opens your heart to something really new,'' added Reuschling. ``I just really encourage everybody to come because I think they will be in awe and touched in a way that they probably will not expect.''

``Children of a Lesser God'' opens Friday in the Black Box auxiliary theater at Lancaster Performing Arts Center, 750 W. Lancaster Blvd. Showtimes are 8 p.m. on Jan. 9, 10, 16 and 17, and 2 p.m. on Jan. 10 and 11. Tickets are $12 for all seats. For more information, call (661) 723-5950.

Peggy Hager, (661) 267-5741

peggy.grimm-hager(at)dailynews.com

CAPTION(S):

2 photos

Photo:

(1 -- color) From left, Katherine Brandfield as Sarah, Diana Friese as Mrs. Norman, Michael Hart as Orin and Liane Orth as Edna Klein rehearse a scene.

(2 -- color) Rachel Rose, 19, as Lydia and Kevin Mills as James Leeds rehearse a scene for ``Children of a Lesser God.''

Jeff Goldwater/Staff Photographer
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Jan 4, 2004
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