James Leeds, a speech teacher at a state school for the deaf. A sensitive, caring, and charismatic teacher in his thirties, James finds himself challenged by Sarah Norman, a sarcastic and rebellious maid at the school whom the headmaster has asked James to help in his spare time. Matching her sarcasm with his own wit and with unorthodox methods of instruction, James attracts her to him and is in turn attracted by her beauty and intelligence. Engaging in a battle of wits via sign language, they fall in love and get married, against the warnings of the headmaster. Despite his attempts to understand Sarah and her point of view, James insists on trying to make her over, pressuring her to learn to read lips and to speak rather than remain entirely dependent on sign language. When a fellow student, Orin Dennis, engages in a battle with James and tries to recruit Sarah into his militant program of reform, she rejects them both, stating that she is her own person. If James is to win her back, he must accept her on her own terms. He learns the damage his attempts to remake her have caused, acknowledges his love and need for her, and attempts a reconciliation.
Sarah Norman, a twenty-six-year-old maid at a state school for the deaf. Deaf since birth, Sarah is estranged from her mother and rebellious against the world. She is highly intelligent but uses her wits only for sarcastic retorts against anyone who tries to intrude into her privacy. Physically beautiful, she has used her sexuality as a way to communicate with the opposite sex but has found her brief relationships meaningless. When James engages her on her own terms in a battle of wits, she reluctantly falls in love with him and marries him, only to find that he is unable to respect her refusal to learn to read lips and speak and thereby give up what he calls her “angry deaf person’s license.” When she becomes a battleground between her husband and Orin Dennis in the latter’s war against school regulations and organization, she leaves her husband, insisting that she will not be manipulated and will not be “the creation of other people.” Only if her husband can let her be the individual that she is, coming into her silence to know her, will she return to him.
Orin Dennis, a student in his twenties at the state school for the deaf. He has some residual hearing and can lip read. Temperamentally militant, Orin is wary of James and hostile to the headmaster. He tries to manipulate Sarah and Lydia into joining his attack on the school organization and authority.
Mrs. Norman, Sarah’s mother. Abandoned by her husband when Sarah was a little girl, she has been unable to cope with her daughter’s handicap and complex personality, with the result that Sarah ran away when she was eighteen. James helps bring about a tentative reconciliation between them.
Mr. Franklin, in his thirties or forties, the supervising teacher at the state school for the deaf. Alternately pompous and congenial, he is skeptical about James’s approach to Sarah and even more skeptical of the success of their marriage, of which he disapproves. A bureaucrat, he bristles when his authority is challenged.
Lydia, in her late teens, a student at the state school for the deaf. A lip reader with some residual hearing, Lydia is infatuated with James and is manipulated by Orin.
Edna Klein, in her thirties, a lawyer recruited by Orin to...
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assist in his attempts to reform the power structure at the state school for the deaf.
Orin Dennis Orin is two years younger than Sarah and has been a student with her at the State School for the Deaf since he was a young child. Orin, however, has some residual hearing and practices both his lip-reading and his speech. He is described as "the guardian of all... deaf children because he [is] an apprentice teacher and speaks." He is also described as someone who"wants to lead a revolution against the hearing world and thinks [the deaf] can hardly wait to follow him."
Onn is angry that Sarah appears to have abandoned him and the deaf world in favor of James and the hearing world. But he enlists both of them to join him in a complaint against the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that alleges discriminatory hiring practices against teachers who are deaf. He is single-minded in pursuit of his goal, convincing a lawyer, Ms. Klein, to advise them about the case. He wants Sarah to leave her"little romance'' and fight with him for deaf rights. Because of his lip-reading and speaking skills, Orin acts as a bridge between the two worlds, although it is apparent from his thoughts and actions that he feels more comfortable in the deaf community.
Mr. Franklin Mr. Franklin is the Supervising Teacher at the State School for the Deaf. He is one of the "Great White Fathers" of deaf education. He takes a condescending attitude toward everyone. He views all the deaf, even the adults like Orin and Sarah, as needy children who need his protection and guidance. However, his compassionate, benevolent pretense is weakened when he says to James: "Mr. Leeds ... we don't fornicate with the students. We just screw them over. If you ever get the two confused ... you're gone." Later, when James goes to him to attempt to broker a settlement in the discrimination case, Mr. Franklin refers to the deaf as his "subjects,'' and promises that no matter what the commission might decide, he will make Orin and Sarah take him to court, and if they are successful there, he will appeal the ruling, tying them up in litigation for years.
Edna Klein Ms. Klein is a lawyer who helps Orin with his claim of discrimination against the State School for the Deaf. She does not know how to sign or how to communicate with Orin or Sarah. She plans to read a speech that she has written before the commission but is accused by Sarah of writing "the same old shit"—that deaf people are helpless and need hearing people to get along in the world. Ms. Klein is well-intentioned, but recognizes neither Sarah or Orin as human beings who can speak for themselves.
James Leeds The play takes place in the mind of James Leeds. As happens to Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman, characters step from James's memory "for anything from a full scene to several lines." James Leeds is a speech teacher at a State School for the Deaf.
Lydia Lydia is a State School for the Deaf student in her late teens. She, like Orin, has some residual hearing, and she faithfully practices her speech and lip-reading skills. However, she is not as mature as Orin and throws herself at James throughout the play. As one of James's students, Lydia has frequent contact with him, but that contact turns into a schoolgirl crush. After James and Sarah marry, Lydia is given Sarah's former job as "maid." Lydia often appears at the Leeds's residence to "watch TV" and be closer to James. She wants to appear "hearing," and even chides James after Sarah has left: "You need a girl that doesn't go away. You need a girl that talks."
Mrs. Norman Mrs. Norman is Sarah's mother, a hearing woman whose husband left her not long after Sarah was sent to the State School for the Deaf. Mrs. Norman appears to be a bitter woman at the beginning of the play. She has been frustrated and challenged in trying to parent a deaf child, and seems disinterested in what James has to say to her about Sarah and her intellectual capabilities. She complains of "feeling like another mandatory stop in some training program for new teachers at the school." Mrs. Norman does reconcile with Sarah after James forces a visit between the two women. She attends their wedding and joins James and Sarah as Mr. Franklin's partner for the bridge game at the beginning of Act II. She welcomes Sarah with open arms after she leaves James.
Sarah Norman Sarah is a woman in her mid-twenties who has been deaf from birth; she works as a cleaning woman at the State School for the Deaf. She refuses to speak and rejects James's attempts at therapy because "I don't do things I don't do well." Sarah signs throughout the play, speaking only in the final climactic scene. She uses American Sign Language (ASL; a conceptual, pictorial expression) rather than the Signed English (a word-by-word, grammatical rendition) technique favored by James.
The physicality of the language itself provides a certain eloquence to the dialogue that speech alone cannot deliver. Even though Sarah turns in a splendid performance at the card party at the beginning of Act II that tests her integration into the hearing world, she confesses to James: "I feel split down the middle, caught between two worlds." This is the central problem for Sarah. Like Nora in Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House, she declares her own identity as a separate person, telling James: "Until you let me be an individual, an /, just as you are, you will never be able to come inside my silence and know me. And until you do that, I will never let myself know you. Until that time, we cannot be joined. We cannot share a relationship."