Review: Silence at the NAC is golden

Tara Rosling is Mabel Bell in Silence now running at the National Arts Centre. Photo: Claus Andersen

If one of the intents of theatre – of any art, for that matter – is to give us entry into worlds we’d otherwise never inhabit, Silence: Mabel and Alexander Graham Bell succeeds splendidly.

The world in this case is that of Mabel Hubbard Bell, who lost her hearing at age five from scarlet fever and who married Alexander Graham Bell before she was out of her teens. But playwright Trina Davies’ story is also about the world of the hearing. It’s about the middle ground where the concentric worlds of the deaf and the hearing intersect. It’s about love, inclusion and exclusion, social expectation and the tangle of family relationships, deafness as both physical fact and metaphor.

If all this sounds weighty, it’s not. Produced by London, Ont.’s Grand Theatre – where the show premiered earlier this year – and directed by Peter Hinton – who’s making his first return to the NAC English Theatre after finishing as artistic director in 2012 – Silence tells its story with the clarity of a good telephone conversation.

There’s a stillness, both visual and aural, at the core of this show that’s like a safe room amid the welter of talk and noise and non-stop activity that seems our lot in the early 21st century. It’s a stillness that a hearing person might imagine a deaf person experiences all the time.

Of course, nothing could be further from the truth, underscoring how little we understand the worlds of others and how readily we turn those who seem different from us into the “other.”

The interior life of Mabel (Tara Rosling) is as complicated and fraught, as clamorous in its own way, as the life her hearing family inhabits. When her mother Gertrude (Suzanne Bennett) tells her, “We want you to have … a life without challenges,” she’s speaking from love but in direct contradiction to who her strong-willed daughter is. Indeed, as we learn, Mabel thrived on challenge, learning multiple languages and honing a lively wit and a tongue even sharper than that of her sister, Berta (Madelyn Narod).

Mabel hungers for engagement in society, and her fond-if-controlling father, Gardiner (Andy Massingham), arranges for her to improve her speaking ability by engaging the services of a speech teacher, Alexander (“Alec”) Graham Bell (Graham Cuthbertson).

The relationship between the two deepens in fits and starts. Bell — excitable, oblivious to social cues, consumed by his inventions – seems an unlikely match for the more careful Mabel. Considering he invented the telephone, a pivot moment in the play, he could be remarkably deaf to the inner and even outer voices of others.

But it’s the old story of opposites attracting, and the relationship that eventually evolves is often rocky – each is sometimes deaf to the other’s needs and wants – but enviable in its bedrock strength and the way it moves husband and wife to inspire each other.

It’s also often funny. To immerse us in Mabel’s world of silence, the play has moments where characters are speaking but, because Mabel, who reads lips, is not looking at them, they merely mouth the words.

At one point, she and her husband are arguing. Every time she turns her head away, silence descends. “Yes,” you think, “That’s pretty much how it works even when neither partner is deaf.”

Beth Kates’ lighting design, an affecting blend of light and shadow, underlines the disparate worlds of the deaf and hearing, male and female, interiority and exteriority. Especially satisfying are the cones of light that surround Mabel and Alec at key moments, highlighting their separateness from each other and from the world and a kind of visual echo of the “cones of silence” that characterize not just Mabel’s but everyone’s life occasionally.

When silence envelopes the stage, as in the scenes involving Alec’s mother, Eliza Bell (Catherine Joell MacKinnon), it speaks loudly. At other times, the accelerating roar of noise in Richard Feren’s sound design is almost unbearable and leaves you momentarily exhausted, a reminder that hearing is a blessing and a curse and that even silence can boom.

The one odd note in the show is Mabel’s costume. While the others are dressed in Victorian fashion (all that black!), her mid-calf outfit and long cardigan are straight out of the 1920s. While she died in that decade and her clothing, like her silence, set her apart from the others, it’s a puzzling choice by designer Michael Gianfrancesco.

Despite the stillness that is one characteristic of this show, Hinton moves the story along with a wholly engaging urgency. These are lives and experiences that matter, that speak directly to us more than a century later, and they merit good storytelling. That, they get.

Silence: Mabel and Alexander Graham Bell is a Grand Theatre productions. In the Babs Asper Theatre until Oct. 28, with an American Sign Language (ASL) presentation Oct. 28 at 2 p.m. The show was reviewed Friday. Tickets: NAC box office, Ticketmaster outlets, 1-888-991-2787,

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Patrick Langston covered English professional theatre for the Ottawa Citizen from 2008 to 2016. He also wrote about music, travel, the local housing industry and other subjects for the paper. Patrick continues to contribute to Ottawa Magazine, Diplomat and International Canada Magazine, and other publications.