Acclaimed theatre and television actress, Jane Kaczmarek, is playing the stage manager in a bold, new production of Thornton Wilder’s 1938 play, Our Town, now playing at Pasadena Playhouse. Our Town is an American classic that has probably seen thousands of productions on high school stages as well as professional ones but this incarnation is doing something decidedly different by adding the element of deaf actors. In a genius collaboration with Deaf West Theatre, the Playhouse production seeks to illuminate the deeper meaning of the play in a whole new way.
The actors have had a longer than normal rehearsal period which Kaczmarek thinks was a very wise decision because the play has been, as she puts it, “tremendously compounded in its complexity by working with deaf actors. I didn’t know that American Sign Language (ASL) is a totally different language; it’s not a literal translation.”
She plays the stage manager who is a kind of narrator who she sees as a kind of ominscient being who passes through time and who takes the audience through this town. “I always have a deaf counterpart, so we had to go through line by line to come up with an equivalent line in sign language and it has to be the same length, we’ve had to breathe together, make sure our interpretations are together” she explains, “I would say a great deal of my rehearsal time has been getting in front of a mirror with Troy Kotsur just watching each other in the mirror as he signs and I speak, getting everything synchronized.” Kotsur is quite the star at Deaf West and Kaczmarek has seen him in Big River and Spring Awakening, both productions that went to Broadway. She says that he is profoundly deaf, while some of the other actors have a tiny bit of hearing and some she says you wouldn’t even know they are deaf because they lip read so well. “Troy is a brilliant actor and we have really had to find this..” she trails off, “it’s become very intimate at this point. He has never heard a word I’ve said and yet you develop this bond and trust with each other although there is no verbal communication. That has been an extraordinary experience.”
Kaczmarek says so much of the play is about communicating; what does a community need? The play takes place between 1901-1913 and it’s this little town and these two families; how they grow up, marry and die and it’s about how people listen to each other. She says, “we’re living in a time when no one is listening to each other. Everyone is just shouting above the din. So learning to talk to deaf people has been a really important lesson! It’s a perfect example of what this play is about and a perfect example of what we really need to be doing in our own communities.”
I asked her what she thought this element will bring to the audience and she got quiet for a moment, “I think they will see people who are completely different than they are and they can relate to them, completely. So often you see people and you think ‘that’s not me’; so many things that make us separate from other people but don’t kid yourself, in the end, we are all in this together.”
The actress who plays Emily is Sandra Mae Frank and Kaczmarek gushes, “you just fall in love with her, you fall in love with her journey and the end of the play is absolutely devastating because of her way of communicating to hearing people without ever saying a word. Hopefully that will be an inspiration for people to try to understand people who are different than they are a little bit more.”
Kaczmarek is the first to admit, they have come a long way since that first day of rehearsal when she says she was intimidated seeing the deaf actors signing a mile a minute and just thinking, “how is this going to work?” She says she thinks back on that now and thinks about how much she loves these people and the friendships they’ve made and exclaims, “it really has been one of the greatest experiences I have ever had in 35 years as an actress.”
The actress has a house in Connecticut in a very old town that is similar to Grover’s Corners (the imaginary town in the play) that she loves very much but she says, “short of that, I can’t imagine living anywhere but Pasadena. So to do my favorite play in my favorite town? Pasadena is a remarkable place, I love my town! And I have to give a shout out to the women! They’re smart, they’re inspired, my reading group has some of the smartest women I’ve ever met, all the non-profits that go on here; I’ve developed friendships here that I never dreamed I could have. So big shout out to the women of Pasadena and South Pasadena!”
Even though she is best known for her multiple Emmy nominated role on Malcolm in the Middle, Kaczmarek’s theatre roots run deep having studied at Yale, performed with Yale Repertory Company and on to Broadway. In high school she saw a production of Our Town at Milwaukee Rep having no idea what it was about and was so devastated by it and was crying so hard she says, “my poor date, Mark Anderson, he must have thought I was insane! And I remember thinking ‘oh my god, is theatre capable of making people feel this way? Think this way?’ So I owe Our Town a great debt in that I thought, ‘wow if I could watch this play and feel so deeply and think so deeply then this is something I’d like to pursue.’”
She did the play in college and has seen many productions through the years and it remains her favorite play, “it’s very simple and moving. I heard a phrase the other day, “the sacred ordinary”, and it so sizes up what this play is about. The little things that happen every day that we take for granted really are the sacred things of life and through simplicity comes transcendence. Reducing your lens, reducing the things I say yes to, reducing all of that has really brought me much greater happiness. The little things. The sacred ordinary.”
Our Town plays through October 22, 2017 at Pasadena Playhouse located at 39 South El Molino in Pasadena’s Playhouse District. Visit www.pasadenaplayhouse for information and tickets. Or call (626) 356-7529.