Deaf actress makes Wheaton Drama history in ‘Addams Family’ musical

“The Addams Family — A New Musical” features lots of characters who look and sound different.

That’s one of the charms of the quirky production based on the old TV show being staged this month and next at Wheaton Drama.

        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        

 

But actress Gretchen Gannon sounds different not because of her part, but because she is the one person in the family who can never sing on key.

“I can’t hear the music, so I really have to rely on memorization,” she said.

And Gannon looks different because she’s not only hitting her spots and performing her dance steps on stage, she’s also signing all the action in American Sign Language.

Gannon, 53, of Lombard, is the first deaf actor in the theater company’s 88-year history, a milestone the Wheaton Drama community is celebrating with the inclusion of sign language interpreters for three of its upcoming shows.

But the longtime actress, along with director Dan Hitzemann and the rest of the cast and crew, is taking it even a step further.

Not only is Gannon deaf, but the character she plays is deaf, too.


        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        

 

 
Actress Gretchen Gannon of Lombard communicates primarily through American Sign Language and will be bringing the deaf-culture element of her personality to the character she plays in Wheaton Drama’s production of “The Addams Family — A New Musical.” Performances of the show with American Sign Language interpreters are set for Sept. 22 and 29 and Oct. 5.
– Patrick Kunzer | Staff Photographer

Gannon is a part of the musical’s 14-member “Ancestor Chorus.” She dons two costumes and plays two versions of her role throughout the show, Hitzemann said, appearing once inside a large frame, acting as a portrait of a flight attendant, and again as a bathing beauty in a dance scene under a moonlit sky.

As Addams Family ancestors, Gannon’s character and the rest of the chorus come back to life in the comedic show to help Addams daughter Wednesday and a “normal” man named Lucas fall in love and get married.

The plot takes place primarily during a family dinner in which the ghoulish Addams Family members fail to mask their love for all things morbid, but also display their better qualities, Hitzemann said — such as their acceptance of each other for who they are, making them “a truer kind of family.”

        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        

 

Just like there’s often one tone-deaf singer in each family, Gannon said there’s sometimes one hearing person in each family who can actually use American Sign Language — her primary mode of communicating. In the “Addams Family,” that character is Uncle Fester.

Fester, played by actor Glenn Leslie, signs with Gannon in the show for two reasons — first to prove he’s the only one who can communicate with the deaf ancestor character, and second to give Gannon extra cues that help make up for the fact she can’t hear the songs.

“That’s part of what makes it a better show,” Hitzemann said. “It’s about the details and giving everyone their chance to shine.”

When Gannon auditioned after a roughly 10-year hiatus from acting, the “Addams Family” production team knew she needed to get a spot in the show. Her humor and stage presence made it apparent.

“Her talent takes over,” Hitzemann said.

So the theater cast her as an ancestor and began working to accommodate her needs.

Funding from an anonymous donor and support from state Rep. Terra Costa Howard, a Glen Ellyn Democrat, helped hire an interpreter for rehearsals and two interpreters to work during four performances of the show.

Interpreter Patti Shore Kaden of Naperville — whose husband, Ken Kaden, plays Gomez — signs to Gannon during rehearsals. Gannon speaks and signs her replies and has helped Leslie, particularly, learn the American Sign Language he needs in his role as Fester.

“I’m trying to teach him,” she said. “Little by little, so I’m not overwhelming him.”

Director Dan Hitzemann oversees Wheaton Drama's production of "The Addams Family -- A New Musical," which involves Patti Shore Kaden as an American Sign Language interpreter for deaf actress Gretchen Gannon, who plays a deaf character in the show. Shore Kaden and another interpreter will be present for three upcoming shows, bringing the musical to deaf people in the audience.
 
Director Dan Hitzemann oversees Wheaton Drama’s production of “The Addams Family — A New Musical,” which involves Patti Shore Kaden as an American Sign Language interpreter for deaf actress Gretchen Gannon, who plays a deaf character in the show. Shore Kaden and another interpreter will be present for three upcoming shows, bringing the musical to deaf people in the audience.
– Patrick Kunzer | Staff Photographer

The musical is turning into an example of enhanced creativity via inclusion, Shore Kaden said. It would be one thing to include Gannon as an actress who happens to be deaf. But it’s entirely another, deeper, decision to allow her to bring the deaf-culture element to her character.

“We have the equality plus the layer of the deaf character,” Shore Kaden said. “That’s even more remarkable.”

The fact that Gannon will be signing to the audience makes Shore Kaden and the other interpreter slightly less critical, yet still an added benefit for people with hearing loss who come to experience the show.

“We don’t want to steal the focus when she is there in front doing everything,” Shore Kaden said. “We’re really not needed. It’s really a choreography.”

The interplay of cast, crew and interpreters got its first chance to shine Saturday, during the musical’s first matinee performance. Other shows with interpreters are scheduled for 3 p.m. Sundays Sept. 22 and 29 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 5. Other performances are set for 7:30 p.m. Fridays, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturdays and 3 p.m. Sundays until Sunday, Oct. 6.

Tickets are available at wheatondrama.org/show/the-addams-family for $21 to $24, and the show will be at Playhouse 111 at 111 N. Hale St.

The show is a fun and funny production, and it’s a worthwhile chance to see how diversity in the form of a deaf actress advances the art of performance, Wheaton Drama leaders say.

Gannon’s previous acting came with deaf theater companies. But she found that during the decade she stepped away from the hobby as she raised her son, most of them had folded.

That’s why she turned to Wheaton Drama looking for an outlet for the love of performing and passion for theater she always has felt. On stage bringing deaf culture to her ancestor character, she said she’s found it, along with a new sense of pride.

“I’m just proud of myself,” she said. “I really am.”

        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        

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