Sweet Nothing in My Ear
Fountain Theatre and M.T. Productions
at Victory Gardens Theater

In Wim Wenders’s film Until the End of the World a blind woman, played by Jeanne Moreau, finally has her vision restored. Using a special camera devised by her son, she’s able to see video images of the family and the world around her, which she hasn’t seen in decades. But the experience, far from lifting her spirits, sends her into a deep depression when she realizes how the world has changed and how old people have become.

One would think that giving a deaf person the ability to hear would be considered a miraculous feat by modern science. But Stephen Sachs’s Sweet Nothing in My Ear suggests that a relatively new medical device may hardly be the godsend that some claim it is.

A cochlear implant, not a hearing aid in the traditional sense, is a sort of computerized transmitter placed inside the ear via wiring inserted through a hole drilled in the skull and hooked up to a contraption worn outside the body. The implant doesn’t enable the deaf to hear sounds in the same way that a hearing person does; it converts sound into signals that are transmitted to the brain, which often must relearn how to interpret them. Even after the implantation, it’s difficult for the person to speak or hear “normally” without extensive work with therapists.

A large contingent of the deaf community regards the implant as an unwelcome and offensive intrusion designed to destroy the richness of deaf culture and create a netherworld of people who can never fully assimilate into either the deaf or the hearing world. One character in Sachs’s play describes cochlear implants as a form of genocide, likening them to a pill designed for the black community that would make everybody white.

It’s a great issue for a play. Other dramas may be better written, but Sachs—who’s also directing the Chicago premiere of his play, first produced at the Fountain Theatre in Los Angeles—has chosen material capable of inspiring intelligent debate on such subjects as the limits of science, the patronizing way in which the deaf community is regarded by outsiders, and whether it’s incumbent on the deaf or the hearing community to adjust to the other.

Sachs has also done a fine job of creating a credible story line. Adam, the eight-year-old son of a hearing father and a hearing-impaired mother, has gradually lost his ability to hear. Then the boy’s father, Dan, learns of the implant that can theoretically restore his son’s hearing. And to him, a computer programmer, this is a miraculous opportunity: his child will be able to listen to music again, hear cars passing by, talk to his grandmother on the telephone, and once again play with hearing children, who have come to regard Adam as a freak. But his mother, Laura, the daughter of deaf parents and a teacher of deaf children, is appalled by the notion of hooking her child up to a computerized device. Refusing to see either herself or her child as handicapped in any way, she views Dan’s arguments to restore the boy’s hearing as selfish and prejudiced. The increasingly bitter debate between Dan and Laura and Laura’s parents over whether Adam should get the implant is the basis of the play.

Sachs offers two children’s stories to illustrate the opposing points of view. The play opens with Laura telling the story of a flightless bird who wonders why he “can’t fly like the other birds” and wishes for the ability to fly. But he’s told that if he learns to fly, he will “no longer be as happy as his family on the ground.” Later in the play, Dan tells Adam the familiar story of a man named Geppetto who longs for a child but only has a puppet named Pinocchio, effectively suggesting Dan’s belief that Adam will not be completely real to him without the ability to hear.

These two stories demonstrate the advantages and disadvantages of Sachs’s approach to his subject: he does an excellent job of framing the debate simply and understandably, but he’s not very subtle about it. He’s created some sympathetic and complex characters—Laura’s gruff, bigoted father is particularly convincing—but the trite dialogue is so burdened with platitudes that it resembles a Sunday-school play, an episode of The Magic Door, or, at best, an after-school special.

The scenes in which Laura and Dan interact with their son are so treacly, in fact, that they make the Waltons look like a case for DCFS intervention. “You are a wonderful boy; don’t you ever forget that,” Dan tells Adam, who at eight is still being given baths. Arguing against the implant, Laura tells Dan that Adam is perfectly happy: “He loves life. He loves his family.” It’s not that the immense love the parents feel for their child isn’t credible; it’s just that, with one homily after another, their love becomes cloying. Even when Laura and Dan’s relationship turns strained and argumentative, their conversations remain trite; Dan even argues that one should embrace new technology because “things are different now—it’s a new world.”

As the initial disagreement devolves into a hard-fought custody battle suggesting a new twist on Kramer vs. Kramer, Sachs’s script and direction become even more manipulative. Any play that concludes with the projected image of a child’s drawing and a scrawled “Goodbye Daddy” will not win points for subtlety. Barbra Streisand’s film company has optioned Sachs’s script, and given her penchant for tear-jerking, issue-driven middlebrow dramas, one can see why. But in its current form, Sweet Nothing in My Ear seems too preachy and blatant even for her.

Sachs’s production is effective enough, boasting the best blend of American Sign Language and spoken performance I’ve seen onstage. Excellent hearing and nonhearing performers are used to great effect, with Philip Lester especially believable and moving as Dan. Sachs is to be commended for providing a forum on a compelling issue, forcing us to wrestle with a subject not generally discussed in the hearing community. But great issues don’t necessarily translate into great plays, and though Sweet Nothing in My Ear works as provocation, it’s leaden as drama. v

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Greg Kolack.