Love Person is a play with a lot of language and a lot of languages, none of which are shared between all four of the characters - or, likely, the audience. The story unfolds in a blend of American Sign Language, English both spoken and written, Sanskrit, prose and poetry. As you might expect, a number of things get lost in translation, but Love Person is more interested in the things that get found.
While a play whose first act focuses heavily on the intricacies of translating a Sanskrit love poem into English probably sounds like a slog to some viewers, Writer-director Aditi Brennan Kapil’s themes of communication and connection are as universal as they come. The story opens at a sparsely attended poetry reading, where hard-partying Vic (Elizabeth Efteland) has dragged her skeptical sister Free (Canae Weiss) and her poetry professor lover Maggie (Erin Anderson Gardner) to meet Ram (Imran Sheikh), the visiting academic with whom she’s having a fling.
Love Person establishes itself as a tri-lingual story right out of the gate, and also makes it clear that each of those languages has its own acute failings depending on who’s speaking and who’s listening. Ram feels his classic Sanskrit poetry loses a lot in the translation to English, Vic doesn’t care so much about what the words are as long as they’re coming out of Ram’s mouth, and ASL-speaking Free considers everybody’s vocal chatter inadequate. But spoken and written language can be very different things, and when Free accidentally strikes up an email conversation with Ram using her sister’s account, dynamics begin shifting all over the place.
Betrayal and reversals, with warmth and wit
With that set-up, Love Person could have easily developed into a bedroom farce or a heavy melodrama, but there are subtler forces at work here. Kapil dodges easy relationship cliches and instead develops a mature, identifiable commentary on connection and isolation in the era of high-tech communication. On paper the play features enough love triangles, familial betrayals and shocking revelations to pass for a soap opera, but the finished product is shot through with warmth, wit and relatability.
For a show that’s much more about conversation than effects and action, Love Person never fails to be visually interesting. That’s partially because of the various forms of long-distance communication involved - any time characters are communicating via phone or email, Michael Hoover’s set design splits the stage between their separate physical spaces - but mainly because of how the play approaches its language barrier.
Whereas most plays and media in general default to a hearing audience, Love Person is designed to be equally accessible to deaf viewers. Most dialogue that isn’t delivered via sign language is projected in written form above the stage (projection design by Adam Raine). The effect is both utilitarian and aesthetically effective, with the visual representation of language adding one more layer to the story’s examination of the ways we speak to one another.
The bridge across the language gap
All of this linguistic discussion may sound a little bit clinical or academic, but Love Person is far from that. It’s a spirited, sweet, genuinely romantic (and I think that’s the first time I’ve ever used that word in a review) play that doesn’t shy away from the darker corners of love and commitment.
The cast shows real chemistry, a necessity in a show where all four characters are given more or less equal weight. Weiss anchors the show with a seething, vulnerable performance, playing Free as a tough-minded, highly expressive character who doesn’t suffer the foolishness of her hearing friends gladly but is also deeply wounded when she’s excluded from it. Of course, Weiss gets a solid boost from the script, which makes Free’s deafness a huge part of her identity but never allows itself to become “that play about the deaf woman.”
Those questions of identity are at the core of what makes Love Person work. Everyone here is well aware of his or her prescribed role and no one is entirely comfortable in it. While there’s plenty of angst to go around, a fair bit of which bubbles to the surface before the show is over, this is too buoyant a production to ever get mired in it. It’s reassuring to see that for every language barrier Kapil’s characters come up against, there’s a language bridge to get them over it.