The Sound of a Good, but Not Great, Story of an Overshadowed Mabel Bell
Silence tells the tale of Mabel Gardiner Bell (née Hubbard), who first encounters Alexander Graham Bell as a 17-year-old girl, when her parents bring her to Bell to assist her with her speech patterns. Mabel is deaf thanks to a bout of scarlet fever, and Bell is continuing his father’s work in visible speech pathology.
At its heart, Silence is a love story, examining the development of Mabel and Alec’s relationship from its first days to the moment that Alec passes away in her arms.
Tara Rosling’s Mabel is the emotional heart of the show and the fulcrum upon which the entire production pivots. She is commanding in the role, changing both her speech patterns to reflect Mabel’s improvements and the passing of time, as well as displaying a wide range of emotions from initial indifference to heartwrenching loss.
At times, the dialogue and production becomes heavy-handed in its portrayal. There are moments designed to convey depth of emotion that linger for more than a few beats too long, and the presentation of dramatic moments occasionally cross the line into melodrama.
And just as the pacing and script could benefit from a little editing, so too could the supportive technical elements and visuals used to support the production have been refined. At times it feels like the production is throwing in every idea and technique possible to complement its story, but they only serve to distract. For example, there is one scene, intended to draw the viewers into the experience of Mabel’s lip-reading, that is largely ruined by the mid-stage presence of a modern-day video camera. It’s an element that is completely incongruous to the time period of the production and serves to remove the suspension of reality. The same effect could have been achieved otherwise—including using a zoom lens from the wings—without sacrificing the integrity of the period.
Another example is the use of sound—and the absence thereof—to convey Mabel’s experience. An effect that saw a tonal cue followed by an absence of speech when a speaker’s face was obscured from Mabel’s view, followed by the same tonal cue and resumption of audible speech, was effectively used early in the production. But that same effect was overused throughout the play, almost falling into parody during one conversation between Mabel and Alec that saw it used multiple times in rapid succession.
In all the concepts were good, but the execution was lacking.
As the story progresses, we see Mabel’s personal growth and progression. As Alexander becomes more obsessed and focused on his work, Mabel is left to raise two daughters. Alexander’s preoccupation with his next great discovery—a desire to prove that his telephone inspiration wasn’t merely luck—leaves Mabel to deal with the death of a son at birth. And the couple’s subsequent relocation to Cape Breton sees her assert her independence, embrace her entrepreneurial and social spirit, and build towards a future.
Rosling’s Mabel is the star of the show, but there were some notable standouts in the cast. Graham Cuthbertson’s Alexander effectively vacillates between devotion and desertion, inspiration and obsession. In contrast to the hyperbolic presence of Cuthbertson’s character stands Catherine Joell Mackinnon’s Eliza Bell, impressive in her subtlety throughout the production. Standing in the back corners, out of the limelight, Mackinnon’s Bell was captivating in the complementary role she played, often punctuating the more prominent action by signing to herself. In one segment, when all attention was focused on Mackinnon as she signed a letter to Mabel, there was no sound, just the force of her hand movements, which was a powerful, emotional moment that was amplified through silence and subtlety.
The stage was intriguing but suffered from clutter. A spartan white backdrop became the canvas for multiple visual elements that often served to distract focus; a mechanical set that transformed a bridge into a home (and back again at the end), was impressive, but moved a little too languidly, halting the progress of the play. And for a play called Silence, there were times when the sound—from the cacophony of phones ringing to characters screaming on the stage—was a little overwhelming.
Silence is a story that deserves to be told, and there are many elements here that make for a compelling tale. The Grand’s production is an ambitious one to be sure, and is one that would benefit from editing and refinement. It is a good production that strives for greatness but falls short. It will still entertain, though, and—more importantly—it will inform viewers of the importance of a person from our history, Mabel Bell, who is all too often overshadowed by her famous husband.