Seeing is Believing: Deaf West and Edward Albee’s At Home at the Zoo

From left: Jake Eberle (the voice of Peter) and Troy Kotsur (Peter) in Edward Albee’s At Home at the Zoo. Photo: Kevin Parry for The Wallis.

For hearing audiences unfamiliar with theatrical productions starring deaf actors, there is a moment of confusion, of uncertainty when the play first begins. The voices we normally latch on to are displaced, a separate experience from the acting going on before our eyes. But that discombobulation is short-lived. In The Wallis and Deaf West Theatre’s production of Edward Albee’s At Home at the Zoo at The Wallis, hearing and deaf audiences alike can experience the majesty of Albee’s words anew.

Zoo Story, Albee’s first play, is an unassuming masterpiece—at about an hour long, it is far shorter than many other masterworks of theater (including Albee’s own Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, which clocks in at a little under three hours). Originally produced in West Berlin in 1958 (after New York producers balked), the play moved to New York and ran Off-Broadway in 1960 for a year and half, winning an Obie Award in the process. One of the strengths of Albee’s work is the concision of his dialogue—short phrases and brief bits of miscommunication among the characters convey great meaning for the audience. An hour is all he needs to make his point.

The original version of the play features two men on a park bench in Central Park. Peter is there to read and relax, but the manic Jerry seems determined to draw his attention. Jerry is a lonely, troubled figure, and his desire to tell Peter a story belies the deep loneliness that has come to define his life. Their meeting, cordial at first, becomes increasingly frenzied, and eventually tragic.

That was the version of the play that audiences saw for decades (with some additional revisions that Albee made over the years). But Albee came to have second thoughts about the nature of Zoo Story. “It’s a play that I’m very happy I wrote. But it’s a play with one and a half characters. Jerry is a fully developed, three-dimensional character. But Peter is a backboard. He’s not fully developed. Peter had to be more fleshed out,” said Albee in a 2011 interview. He sat on these thoughts for years before finally producing a new first act, titled Homelife, which premiered in 2004. Originally called Peter & Jerry, before settling on Edward Albee’s At Home at the Zoo, the two act version is the one performed by all professional companies. (Only amateur and student companies are allowed to perform the original Zoo Story.)

Pictured from left: Paige Lindsey White (the voice of Ann) and Amber Zion (Ann) in Edward Albee’s At Home at the Zoo. Photo: Kevin Parry for The Wallis.

Homelife takes place earlier the same day as Zoo Story in Peter’s East Side Manhattan apartment. His pleasant, if unremarkable, marriage to Ann is chugging along without any real passion. The two have settled into a routine of passive ignorance; they both love each other, but find it easier to focus on their jobs and tasks rather than to actually communicate. But Ann is determined to change that. The new act fleshes out Peter’s backstory, helping us to understand the conflicts that animate his life, which were mostly invisible in Zoo Story.

Part of what is remarkable about At Home at the Zoo is how well the two acts cohere. Homelife is certainly the work of an older, more mature artist, and Albee is more reserved in his writing. There’s no place for something like Jerry’s half-crazed story of the dog in this setting. But this new version of Peter fills in all the missing pieces from Zoo Story without seeming like a brand new character, as if Albee had intended this to be Peter’s story from the moment he wrote the first play.

Deaf West, a Los Angeles-based theater company, has put on the current production at The Wallis, directed by Coy Middlebrook. The play is accessible to both deaf and hearing audiences: the main performance onstage is done by the deaf actors, speaking in American Sign Language (ASL). (It’s worth noting that ASL is not just a pantomimed version of English, but its own language, as distinct as Russian or Swahili, and with its own rules and grammar.) ASL Master Linda Bove translated the English version into sign language (she also played Linda the Librarian on Sesame Street for decades). The main actors on stage are augmented by hearing voice actors, who perform Albee’s words in concert with the deaf actors.

In selecting At Home at the Zoo, Deaf West artistic director David Kurs tried to find an exciting play that could appeal to deaf audiences. “I think we strive to push the bar with each production that we do,” said Kurs via email. “We hope to do something different with each production. First we will consider whether the piece will speak to our primary audience, our deaf audience members, and if we’re lucky it will also appeal to our hearing audience members.”

For deaf members of the audience, the deaf actors are the primary focus of the play. Troy Kotsur and Amber Zion, who play Peter and Ann, respectively, are located on the main stage in Homelife. The stage is surrounded by a cage with bits of blackened bed posts and chair legs attached to it, a detritus of domestic furniture that isolates mankind from a savage nature. To the left of the stage are Jake Eberle, who voices Peter, and Paige Lindsey White, who voices Ann. Kotsur and Zion are hesitant at first as Peter and Ann, as if cautious about stepping into the other person’s space. The play has been adjusted slightly to better reflect the conversations of a deaf couple: whenever Peter and Ann are speaking to each other, they have to look, or the meaning is lost. This also accentuates their disconnect beyond what Albee put on the page. There are multiple moments when Peter calls out to Ann, who has left the living room and gone into the kitchen. In writing, or in a production with hearing actors, hearing audiences get the impression that both characters can hear, but only distantly, and incompletely. In Deaf West’s production, anything that Peter signs when Ann steps out of the room is missed. The failure of communication that Albee has written into the play is further underscored by the staging, and the stakes of their marriage are made greater.

From left: Troy Kotsur (Peter) and Russell Harvard (Jerry) in Edward Albee’s At Home at the Zoo. Photo: Kevin Parry for The Wallis.

For hearing members of the audience, seeing the deaf actors and hearing the voice actors is reminiscent of the double experience of Julie Taymor’s Lion King musical, in which actors sang and spoke while also using puppets to convey the animal characters. For the voice actors, the performance is not a simple matter of reciting Albee’s words. Rather, they are constantly watching the deaf actors and following along to time their delivery so that it exactly matches what the deaf actor has signed. Russell Harvard, who played Jerry in the first half of At Home at the Zoo’s run, would alternate between rapid bursts of dialogue and slower, more contemplative speeches. Jeff Alan-Lee, the voice of Jerry, would match the speed of his own delivery with Harvard’s, so that his speaking never outpaced Harvard’s signing. Poorly-matched performances would constantly pull hearing audiences away from the story, but the well-oiled machine of deaf and voice actors avoids that pitfall.

After seeing At Home at the Zoo at The Wallis, I had a remarkable experience that previously had only been elicited by foreign films. After watching international movies that have truly moved me, I tend to remember them as if the actors were speaking in English. My mind translates the dialogue from the original language into the English subtitles that I had read. Whatever small disconnect existed at the time I watched the movie is erased. After seeing the play and replaying it in my mind, I heard the voices and visualized the performances as if they were one. At Home at the Zoo was my first experience with deaf and hearing accessible theater, and an impressive one at that. By opening up Albee’s play to new audiences, Deaf West has deepened its impact for all.

To learn more about The Wallis, visit TheWallis.org.

From left: Russell Harvard (Jerry) and Troy Kotsur (Peter) in Edward Albee’s At Home at the Zoo. Photo: Kevin Parry for The Wallis.