TORONTO – Trina Davies initially set out to write a play about Alexander Graham Bell.
But as she started digging into books on the inventor of the telephone, she came across an even more fascinating figure — his wife, Mabel Hubbard, who was deaf.
“Mabel Hubbard was a genius in her own right,” says Davies, who was prompted to look into Bell’s life some 10 years ago by the late dramaturge Iris Turcott.
“I was really struck by the irony that Alexander Graham Bell created the telephone, obviously, but he couldn’t use it to communicate with his wife, who was deaf, or his mother, who was deaf. So it had limited personal use for him.”
As Davies wrote the stage show, she aimed to show the story from Hubbard’s perspective.
So “Silence,” which starts preview performances Tuesday at the Grand Theatre in London, Ont., features moments of silence as well as actors who are hearing, deaf and hard of hearing.
“If Mabel can’t see something, then we as the audience can’t understand what is being said or what is happening, because she has to make eye contact to understand the message that’s happening,” says Davies, who is based in Vancouver and has staged her plays around the world.
“Let’s say they’re in a tea scene and Mabel is sitting with everyone and they’re having a conversation — if Mabel’s attention gets drawn to something that is on the wall or something like that, and she turns and looks at that, for the audience the scene would continue but with no sound. If she turns back in, then we understand and we experience it the way she would.”
Acclaimed director Peter Hinton has also integrated British sign language and American sign language throughout the show, and has had ASL interpreters as well as the sound designer in the room during rehearsals.
Opening night is Friday, which will be an open-captioned performance, with a screen projecting the words on one side of the stage. There will also be an open-captioned performance on Saturday as well as ASL-interpreted performances on Jan. 24 and Jan. 28.
“What a radical thing it is for the theatre, for a play that is bringing such a unique perspective,” says star Tara Rosling, who plays Hubbard in a cast that also includes Graham Cuthbertson as Bell.
“When do we get to see this perspective on the stage? Peter, initially when he was telling me about the concept, his whole idea was: ‘Mabel is not other.'”
As a hearing actress, Rosling had to work with a speech pathologist as part of her research.
“It’s tricky with Mabel because she wasn’t born deaf, so she had a basis of language and it was at five that she became ill with scarlet fever and lost her hearing,” Rosling says.
“In (the book) ‘Make a Joyful Sound,’ it says she was such a proficient lip reader and such a skilled speaker that many people didn’t know that she was in fact deaf.”
Bell met Hubbard when he was a teacher for the deaf and tutored her.
“Mabel’s family belonged to a group of very high-class, high society people in Boston that were known at the Boston Brahmin,” Davies says. “They’re America’s aristocracy and Alec was known as basically the best tutor for the deaf in Boston, so Mabel’s father hired Alec to be Mabel’s tutor.”
Ultimately the story is about how we connect, disconnect and reconnect in long-term relationships, say the creators.
“It ties into the ideas about communication — how much of that actually comes in the words that we use or is communicated in an entirely different way, through looks, through gesture, through an understanding of what’s being said, even though the words are different,” says Davies.
“The deaf is one aspect of the piece and then at its core it’s this unbelievable love story charting the lowest lows and the highest highs of a relationship between two people,” adds Rosling.