| A monologue (of about forty minutes) for an aphasic character born in the Middle East and living in Venice, California) written by Jean- Claude van Itallie and Joseph Chaikin. Dramaturg: Bill Coco. First performed March 1988 by Joseph Chaikin at the Mark Taper Forum’s Taper Too, LA, directed by Robert Woodruff, produced by Madeline Puzo. Performed in 1991 by Chaikin at the American Place Theater, NYC, directed by Nancy Gabor. Later productions at Kansas University, directed by Penny Wiener, and in San Francisco, directed by James Anderson.
FROM REVIEWS OF Struck Dumb
"These words are about wonder. When an earthquake shakes the brain, and you stumble out alive, there’s an odd exhilaration in it. Then, like a baby, you begin, all over again, to learn. The man in Struck Dumb revels in music, these melting sounds coming from a little box called a — what? …this character is doping out the world all over again, with the intensity of a Talmudic scholar. The image is gallant and droll." Dan Sullivan, Los Angeles Times, March 28, 1988.
"...says playwright Jean-Claude van Itallie, ‘If you’re a writer for the theatre and you know someone who’s lost the usual power of speech, it very interesting to re-examine from that point of view, to show how somebody relearns speech, not having lost intelligence.’
Struck Dumb, a captivating new monologue co-written by van Itallie and actor-director Joseph Chaikin, the subject is the relationship between speech and mind. It’s based on the real-life struggles of Chaikin, who in 1984 suffered a stroke that left him with aphasia, a diminished capacity for speech and memory. Chaikin himself performs Struck Dumbon a double bill with The War in Heaven, a monologue he co-wrote with Sam Shepard.
Struck Dumb centers around a day in the life of a middle- aged man named Adnan, a former singer who’s recently had a stroke. He’s now a philosopher, a solitary man living in Venice Beach, for whom language is an unusual challenge. "Anything to do with speech — it’s work," he tells us. Whether at home or sitting at his desk or outdoors wandering through a shopping mall, Adnan grapples with the simplest demands of word choice and pronunciation. His observations come to us in fragments. His insights, though profound in nature, are sparely told, Adnan’s consciousness is portrayed in much the same way he experiences his life — in short interrupted parts.
But less is more, it seems, in the drama of an aphasic mind. For Adnan while words are a chore, they’re also sacred. He’s struggling, we sense, for something more than clarity. "A shell," he remarks while walking on the beach, "It’s ordinary. It’s a miracle. It’s nothing special. It’s a miracle." His aim is for poetry in the chaos, for a language that’s simple and beautiful and that, most importantly, connects him as an artist to his audience...he’s a man who accepts himself as violently reborn.
Van Itallie and Chaikin may have had a history of unusual collaborations... but their current production is surely one of the most extraordinary.
...For director Robert Woodruff, the real challenge, van Itallie says: ‘was how to create an environment for an aphasic actor to communicate a character to the audience.’...Woodruff’s solution, a system of pullies and ropes that brings the script on stage from the left and the right, provides one of the most striking features of the production. There’s text hung from the walls. It’s written on the floor. It descends from the ceiling. It even beams in on TV monitors. The effect is comical and bizarre, a strange metaphor for the complexity of a mind finding its way through a labyrinth of language.
Van Itallie: ‘...there’s a sense of exile, of something being over, and something starting afresh. There’s a sense of awe, perception and humor.’...Chaikin’s performance, it must be said, is an act of courage, a feat of openness and spontaneity unlike any I’ve ever seen." Tom Stringer, LA Reader, April 1, 1988.
Waking up: it's a shock.
Sleeping: it's dreaming, it's traveling, it's easy.
Waking up on earth,
Every morning: an event.
Every morning, ordinary.
I look, wanting to find "perfect."
But there is no "perfect."
Except sometimes --
A few seconds -— they are perfect.
Anthologized: The Best American Short Plays 1991-1992, Ed. Howard Stein & Glenn Young, Applause, NYC: 1992.