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Stage review

An inclusive message from ‘The Taste of Sunrise’

Elbert Joseph as Tuc in “The Taste of Sunrise” at Wheelock Family Theatre.
Elbert Joseph as Tuc in “The Taste of Sunrise” at Wheelock Family Theatre. Gary Ng

Toward the very end of “The Taste of Sunrise,” there’s an emotionally eloquent argument between Amanda Collins’s Maizie, a teenage girl with a hard-luck life and Hollywood-inspired dreams, and Tuc, a deaf boy who has befriended her, played by Elbert Joseph, an actor who indeed happens to be deaf.

Maizie can hear just fine but was born to deaf parents, she explains, and she doesn’t want her children to be stuck between worlds like she was. With the aid of American Sign Language (ASL) and plenty of nonverbal communication, Tuc insists that she has a home in his hilltop shack.

Between these two actors and others onstage who unobtrusively interpret for them, the characters’ words are rendered in spoken English as well as ASL. In the swirl of emotion and the swift rat-a-tat-tat of their exchange, it’s almost hard to tell where one language ends and the other begins. They’re all just different voices, different parts of the same story.

It’s in moments like these that this production of Suzan Zeder’s play at Wheelock Family Theatre finds its energetic stride, depicting people in trying circumstances looking for some sort of connection in a world that seems bent on keeping them isolated. If parts of this earnest play, intended for young audiences as well as adults, feel a bit like a nutritious serving of theatrical vegetables rather than a compelling drama, it’s a modest price to pay.

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Joseph didn’t start acting until he felt inspired, as a 12-year old, by a production of “Peter Pan” at the Wheelock. His performance as the centerpiece of “The Taste of Sunrise” is sandwiched between turns as the same character in “Mother Hicks” (at the Paramount last month) and “The Edge of Peace,” which opens at Central Square Theater on April 3.

Zeder’s trilogy deals with the evolving state of the deaf experience in America, as seen through the doings in and around Ware, Ill., before, during, and after the Great Depression. This trio of productions is billed as the first time the plays have been mounted in consecutive fashion in (more or less) the same city.

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Joseph plays Tuc as a large-hearted simpleton prone to big emotions and forceful mood swings — here he’s terrified, there he’s bursting with anticipation. For all its lack of verbal speech, it’s a very loud performance, suggesting the sublimated frustration of a young man who is frequently silenced. Sure, I would have preferred more nuance, but the many children in the audience at a Saturday matinee seemed to follow everything just fine, and that seems closer to the point.

Co-directors Kristin Johnson and Wendy Lement weave some wonderful moments of understated poetry into a story that otherwise works in broad strokes. The depiction of children being struck by scarlet fever, and, later, of one character’s death, go far with simple props and graceful movement. When Tuc physically leans on the memory of a departed family member in the second act, the visual metaphor is easy for all to grasp, yet quietly pretty.

Costumed onstage interpreters perform much more than a purely functional purpose. They are parallel manifestations of each character’s inner life, and move within the action with grace and wit. (Line by line, the play’s text is also projected at the rear of the stage.) Long gone, Johnson and Lement seem to say, is the sole ASL interpreter relegated to a little oval in the corner of a television screen — or wearing street clothes, bathed in a footlight, at the front of the stage. (In a post-show audience talkback, Zeder said this is the most “inclusive” production of the play she has seen.)

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Janie E. Howland’s set and Lisa Simpson’s costumes evoke the Depression, though there’s a notable shortage of the dirt and grime we might expect on a farm or among rural townsfolk who still mistake midwifery for witchcraft.

Though a group of young students from the Horace Mann School for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing in Allston prove a quite welcome addition to the ensemble, the play gathers momentum when it focuses on only a few characters’ stories in the second half. Brittany Rolfs brings a bemused swagger to Nell, the midwife whose fondness for singing to the gravely ill is mistaken as malevolent spell-casting; her efforts to lay aside her own grief do much to aid the show’s climax. As a very likable Maizie, Collins is both street-wise and naive. Cliff Odle projects warm-hearted gravitas as Tuc’s father. Ethan Hermanson is a steady anchor for the audience, as the narrating voice of Tuc.

The heavy-handed nature of this play is hinted at in its title. But with this production Wheelock offers a tasteful model for mixing together the deaf and the hearing — onstage, backstage, and in the audience — to create an entertainment that is coherent to each and panders to neither.

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Jeremy D. Goodwin can be reached at jeremy@jeremydgoodwin.com.