By Courtney Church, January 21, 2018
As the chatter in the house fades and a single match strike echoes across the stage, Trina Davies’ “Silence” comes to life for the first time at the Grand Theatre.
The play tells the story of Alexander Graham Bell and Mabel Hubbard’s marriage as it develops from their tutor-pupil relationship into romantic love. Alec, as Mabel calls him, is tasked with helping his deaf pupil hone her already impressive speaking abilities. Their relationship matures from hesitant, awkward affection into a connection predicated upon overcoming the challenges of communicating with each other. These challenges are, in part, because they cannot speak conventionally. Yet, as Davies shows us, Alec and Mabel’s mutual understanding – and misunderstanding – of one another is a side effect of love itself, regardless of ability.
The beauty of this love story stems from Davies’s refusal to romanticize her characters. Alec and Mabel are not perfect; she is not the victim in a world working against her and he is not the perfect suitor that sweeps in to save the day. At times their love is warm and engaging, sometimes cold and unfeeling, and most times some mix of the two.
This, to my mind, is the crux of the play: love is a messy web of tangled telephone wires, static and electric at once.
photo: CLAUS ANDERSEN / THE CANADIAN PRESS
Like the relationship it depicts, “Silence” does have its faults. Many of the scenes feel disconnected as if they are out of sync with the scene that comes before. The timeline itself is relatively cohesive, but certain leaps through time change the dynamic between the two leads before the audience can catch up. Given that the play is about the difficulties of communication, this does make sense, but at points Alec and Mabel’s problems seem to emerge and dissipate without cause on a purely narrative level.
Having said that, the play does aspire to be more than simply a tale of love; it is also a testament to the difficulty of telling one’s own story, and here Davies succeeds marvellously.
“Silence” is told in retrospect from Mabel’s perspective as she looks out from their home, Beinn Bhreagh, in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. From this vantage point, the play looks back on the beginning of her and Alec’s relationship. Though it moves forward chronologically, the narrative is peppered with moments of Mabel’s reflection and her struggle relating the events that unfold in her memory.
Not only is her mind the frame for the plot, she is also the locus through which all communication occurs. When she can see the face of another character and read their lips, we too are able to hear what that character says. When Mabel turns away, however, voices are no longer audible; mouths move, yet no words issue forth. In these moments Hinton uses the sound of a gentle drone to leave the audience feeling as if it might be underwater.
Suspended from sound Mabel must rely on other senses, touch and sight, to tell her story.
Depicting Mabel’s other senses is where set designer Michael Gianfrancesco and lighting and projection designer Beth Kates shine.
The set design is a flawless interpretation of Mabel’s mind. Stage lights shine down as if through water. Muted blue and black tones accompany muffled sounds. A handful of bright red props are those that produce the most noise, a visual and aural barrage of senses on an otherwise subdued stage.
The effect submerges the performance in the depths of memory.
Impressive, too, is the Grand’s commitment to accessibility. They offer both open captioned performances and performances that are American Sign Language interpreted. The script includes a signed dialogue between Alec and his mother Eliza Bell, played by Catherine Joell Mackinnon. This moment is one of the most powerful in the play not because it is signed, but because sign language is only one part of the medley of means of understanding each other.
When you take your seats for “Silence” remember that you are not just watching a play. You are within it, listening, watching, and feeling the vibrations of sound waves around you. Remember this and Mabel “will know you are listening.”
The Grand Theatre
Jan. 16 – Feb 3
ASL interpreted performances Wednesday, Jan. 24 at 11:00am and Sunday, Jan. 28 at 2:00pm.
Purchase tickets online
Box office: (519) 672-8800
Courtney Church is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of English and Writing Studies at Western University, where she researches modern and contemporary British theatre. Most of her time in the theatre is spent behind the scenes, tinkering with set design and thinking about props.