- The Washington Times - Friday, November 7, 2008

To the hearing world, a deaf musician may seem a contradiction in terms, but the inspiring and gleefully calamitous “Playing From the Heart” shows how restrictive labeling can be and how liberating it is to defy narrowed expectations.

Imagination Stage is hosting the American premiere of this British import, which depicts the formative years of percussionist Evelyn Glennie, who was pronounced “profoundly deaf” at the age of 12 but went on to be accepted at the Royal Academy of Music and become an internationally acclaimed musician. She performed in September with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra at Bethesda’s Strathmore Hall.

“Playing From the Heart” concentrates on Miss Glennie’s childhood, the years leading up to her playing in a student concert at London’s Royal Albert Hall. Evelyn (Erica Siegel, an actress with a hearing impairment) stands poised at what she knows is “her moment” and looks back at the forces that influenced her, including a loving family and a craving for music and rhythm that stretches back as far as she can remember.

Charles Way’s play, directed by Janet Stanford, is ingeniously conceived, as it integrates the idea that for lip readers, words and music form shapes. The set, by Elizabeth Jenkins McFadden, is a melange of corrugated metal and wooden shapes just begging to be tapped with a stick or the hand. They often are, too, because scenes of dialogue are broken up by lively musical interludes in which the cast beats kinetic rhythms on found percussive instruments (metal pipes, wheelbarrows, flapping laundry and floor tiles) similar to what you would find in the show “Stomp.”

The musical breakouts are the most joyous and entertaining part of the show, which, ironically, can get bogged down in overly earnest spoken dialogue. The expert cast, especially Joe Brack, Rex Daugherty and Eric Messner - playing a slew of characters, including Evelyn’s family - try to inject quirkiness and humor into the many doctors, teachers and well-meaning adults who help or hamper Evelyn’s ambitions.

The play also tries to convey the world of a deaf person, both in the poetic dialogue spoken by Evelyn’s character - in which she eloquently describes her increasingly hampering hearing as “being like white snow smothering sound” - and in how an artist like Evelyn “feels” music. It is not just the vibrations she feels. The emotions of the notes resonate inside her, as if she has ears on the inside.

It would be interesting to find out what deaf activists think of Miss Glennie, who lip-reads, refused to attend schools for the deaf and does not define herself as a “deaf musician.” However, politics do not enter into this winningly staged, straightforwardly rousing story of a young girl’s unflagging determination to let the world see that there is more to music and rhythm than what meets the ears.

★★★

WHAT: “Playing From the Heart,” by Charles Way

WHERE: Imagination Stage, 4908 Auburn Ave., Bethesda

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 4 p.m. Saturday beginning Nov. 15; 4 p.m. Sunday; 2 p.m. Nov. 26; 11 a.m. Nov. 28. Through Nov. 30.

TICKETS: $18.50

PHONE: 301/961-6060

WEB SITE: www.imaginationstage.org

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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