Vision Thing

Show #36: Truce, Vanguardian Productions, March 24.

Marilee Talkington in Truce. Photo by Andrew Lu

One of only two legally blind actors in the United States with MFAs in acting, Marilee Talkington is not yet, she explains, totally blind. Due to hereditary rod-cone dystrophy, Talkington has zero vision of what she looks at directly, but at least has some small peripheral vision, which she will continue to lose over time.

Talkington’s autobiographical one-woman show about her experience going blind, Truce, originated in New York in 2005 and now has its West Coast premiere at San Francisco’s Noh Space under the aegis of her own Vanguardan Productions, in a stripped-down staging by Crowded Fire artistic director Marissa Wolf.

Cowritten with the piece’s original director Justin Quinn Pelegano, Truce is in one sense an exercise in venting about this state of affairs, but if it’s performance as therapy, it’s of a kind that’s more rewarding for the listener than at first would seem possible.

I just broke my cardinal rule,” she says near the beginning, that rule being when talking about her disability “never do so in a way that expresses bitterness.”

She’ll break that rule a lot in the next 90 minutes, which is understandable, because grappling with that bitterness turns out to be a lot of what the show is about. She talks a lot about her blind mother putting her down and telling her she couldn’t do things, and often calls her “the woman who gave me this disease.”
“Fact: I am 32 years old,” she says. “Fact: It is probably time that I stopped blaming my mother. Fact: That right now is a goal.”

A diaphanous white screen in front of the stage slightly obscures the action, as does a subtly growing white spot in the center of the screen (video edited by David Helman). The intent is clearly to give the audience some small hint of the experience of being visually impaired, and as such it’s thankfully only somewhat successful. More often than not the lights behind the screen are bright enough that, far from it being an obstruction, you can only see the white spot if you really look for it.

She talks about how she loved going to the eye doctor as a kid and being the center of attention. She does intriguing, often violent dances with various white canes hidden around the spare set. She shows her facility with a basketball while talking about her great knack for sports until her vision loss made it impossible to play. Doing a sensual dance to “O Fortuna” from Carmina Burana, she talks about her budding awareness of her body and various, often hilarious sexual encounters in college, like the surfer dude who was sure he could cure her eyes with his spunk.

At first it feels like Talkington is trying too hard to be entertaining the same way someone might at a party, with big gestures and exaggerated character voices, such as a slightly cloying but cute little-girl voice for her younger self and a sophisticated ‘40s screen siren for her mom.

Some of the most stylized elements in the show are also the least effective, particularly a recurring bit where she recites numbers: “20/20, 20/40, 20/60, 100” et cetera, and then hurls herself onto the ground. The occasional voiceovers of people talking to her in Elise Lebec’s sound design are much too loud.

Ultimately, however, such considerations feel like small quibbles, because it’s Talkington’s story that really sticks with you, and boy does it ever. It’s a compelling, sometimes devastating account, and you can only feel fortunate that she’s chosen to share it.

What’s particularly gutting is her frank talk about her issues with blind people, actively avoiding them because she associates them with the weakness she doesn’t want to give in to herself. She talks about having no blind or sight-impaired friends, and thus having no one to talk to about what she’s going through, and when she does talk to people with conditions like hers she finds herself rejected because of her refusal to use a cane, which they see as staying in the closet about her blindness.

One of the most affecting things she talks about is forcing herself to look people in the eye when she talks to them, to put everyone concerned at ease, even though that means she can’t see them at all, whereas if she looked away she could at least see them a little. “Fact: If I look you in the eye, I cannot see you,” she says. “This makes me a liar. I do this for your comfort, and mine.”

Indeed, Truce’s truth-telling is seldom a comfortable thing, but hearing it you can’t help but connect with Talkington’s experience and the eloquent way she expresses it. For thankfully entirely different reasons than hers, you can’t look away.

Truce runs through April 3 at Noh Space, 2840 Mariposa St., San Francisco.

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