The Secret Garden–Pamela Sterling’s stage play adaptation of the beloved book by Frances Hodgson Burnett, not the Lucy Simon and Marsha Norman musical–is the third children’s theater production in the last four years at Raleigh Little Theater to actively incorporate deaf actors on stage. As in earlier productions of Mother Hicks and a particularly memorable Jungalbook in 2000, a combination of deaf and hearing actors signed the dialogue in American Sign Language while other actors simultaneously spoke the characters’ lines.

We’ll pause here just long enough to let some readers wonder if children’s theater–in which the principal performers are school-age children, not adult actors in shows geared toward the same audience–is an appropriate site for critical analysis. After all, David Sedaris lampooned the proposition in Holidays on Ice to vent, yes, just a bit more Yuletide spleen, in a short story called “Front Row Center with Thaddeus Bristol.”

But if critics were truly forbidden from talking about children’s theater, there could be no commentary at all about regional deaf theater in the past four years. The three plays mentioned above constitute the only regional works featuring non-hearing actors in the past four years–and actually, much longer than that. More on this in a moment.

Of course, children should be shielded from public ridicule. But critical analysis can further the educational process, and add additional insight to those learning a craft. And it can be done in such a way that we don’t have to hide the kids.

Thus the following words, directed to the cast of The Secret Garden: a possible example of what such a thing might do.

Dear student artists:

I respect the considerable work, the talent and the palpable energy you put into the performance of The Secret Garden I saw last Friday night. Those were the things that ultimately convinced me to write you, all: Work of the caliber I saw deserves praise. Beyond that, the degree of your commitment and the nature of your acting calls for considerably more support and more feedback than a simple round of applause at the end of a show.

That’s one of the main reasons we critics do the work we do: to attempt to provide critical support and feedback to artists who are still in the process of growing. Of course, sometimes critics encounter individuals (on stage and in the audience) no longer interested in growing, who believe they’ve evolved to a state where they have nothing left to learn. We generally bring them different messages than the ones I have for you.

When I noticed the number of actors who took both signing and speaking roles in your production, I had to ask myself how many adult actors would bother to find out what it takes to learn lines in a different language just to put on a show involving the deaf community. I asked myself what they might they learn from the experience if they did.

Now you can tell them. I sincerely hope you do; it’s something they need to know.

My point is that it took significant commitment to do this–in itself an act of artistic generosity that’s still far too rare on our stages. But on another level, what you did is really nothing more than a logical extension of the actor’s creed–to extend one’s body and abilities, to lend another soul a voice and visibility it normally does not have.

Your costume and lighting designers did well by you. The principals looked the part, and the maze of hallways in the Craven mansion–created by light alone–was as imaginative as the walls and doors you created with your directors’ guidance. Clearly, the house itself mocked young Mary’s confusion. It’s good when an ensemble of actors works together to create a world on stage; something we saw on a number of occasions Friday night.

Perhaps the greatest compliment a critic can give an actor is to simply say, “I believed you.” It applies here, to the signing actors on stage–to contrary Mary, the forbidding Mrs. Medlock, sweet Martha the maid (though still a bit young for a mother), Ben the gardener, the singular Dickon and young Colin too.

Praise is worthy, and good. Still, if you’re to improve, you need to know that there were things left to work on as well. The fact is, it’s likely that I would have enjoyed your show more if I were deaf. That’s true for one reason only.

As in earlier shows, each character in Secret Garden was represented by two actors. Here, the principal characters signed their lines at center stage in ASL, while the actor voicing their lines all but always did so from the margins of the stage, if not beyond.

But the speaking actors spoke so fast and so frequently that I could not understand what they were saying. Were it one person in one situation, or just one performer throughout, I would have concluded it was just a bad case of runaway actor, and be done with it.

But the words “fast” and “unintelligible” appeared so many times in my notes, for so many different voices on stage, that I believed something else was likely happening here. Either your directors hadn’t noticed something fairly big, or they had noticed and told you, and you didn’t listen when they did.

Both scenarios were possible. Actors, while you get to say a line a thousand different times in rehearsal, an audience only gets to hear it once. As you get comfortable with lines, they can very naturally, very gradually begin to accelerate through weeks of rehearsal.

And since directors and crew are hearing the same lines over and over again, they too can actually miss that point when an audience that doesn’t already know the script can’t understand what’s being said. It’s one reason why directors sometimes have people who aren’t familiar with the show sit in on rehearsals at certain points–to look out for their blind spots.

When I could make out your accents I enjoyed them. But jackrabbit line delivery and sloppy diction cut the impact of several jokes, and foiled the act of communicating with your audience on even more occasions.

Why did the children at this children’s show get so fidgety? Several reasons, most likely. Even with your speeding, the second act was lengthy–which is no fault of yours. But if they’d always been able to tell what you were saying, they probably would have stayed with you much better.

I also disagree with your set designer, who provided you and us both with a secret garden that looked pretty threadbare on the whole–and one without an ancient wall or doorway leading into it, both pretty key elements for this production. While I appreciate the garden’s disarray when Mary finds it first, there wasn’t enough difference between that and what the garden grows into when spring finally comes.

The stage compositions your directors made, using actors to play twisted roots, plants and trees, were truly interesting, and green-fingered gloves at the tip of black body costumes were a pretty cool way to convey budding life. But more was needed when everything–and everyone–ultimately bloomed.

To be candid, two other things disturb me about The Secret Garden. Neither of them have anything to do with your contributions to the show.

As I noted above, costumed signing actors were set at center stage, while their vocal counterparts, dressed in solid black, spoke their lines from the margins.

But isn’t the stage big enough to accommodate both at the same time?

I don’t have to use my imagination to answer the question. I’ve seen it happen, in the shadow-signed Jungalbook, and to a lesser extent, last year’s Mother Hicks. Both shows pushed down boundaries, and invoked a marvelous shared space for actors of all abilities, on stage at the same time.

I believe your director pulls back those boundaries considerably when he only admits signing actors to costumed roles and the center stage in Secret Garden. To my eyes, he has taken the historic imbalance between deaf and voiced roles and merely reversed it.

As a single take on these issues, such a stand has interest. But in the program I read that this show “completes” your theater’s “journey from producing interpreted shows to producing true Deaf theatre.” This indicates to me that your director believes that only one form, this one, is actually “true.” Apparently, all the others are false.

Please know that there is actually a considerable difference of opinion on this. Should an integrated stage consistently force any group to the margin? Is that what theater’s ultimately all about?

And isn’t that what’s going on, on another level, when the only productions using deaf actors in a region are children’s shows?

In a culture that has historically tended to treat differently abled people like, well, children, isn’t there a possibly unsavory subtext at work when a theater only seems able to accommodate deaf actors in shows about kids?

Is adolescent fare really all the deaf community is capable of appreciating? All it wants to see? Are there no deaf adults out there?

Would hearing audiences stand for a constant diet of only children’s tales, when they saw others getting more?

To this point the children (and their directors) have bravely led the way at RLT–and much thanks are due them. But if RLT’s commitment to deaf and integrated performance is genuine, it needs to happen at least once on a stage occupied by adults, in a show geared to that community.

There’s no excuse: The kids have proven that it can be done. The only question left now is if it will be.