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MIHS drama shines a light on blindness

Chad Coleman/Mercer Island Reporter Actors Harry Spitzer (left), Anna Levin and Jeremy Howell lead the MIHS cast in “In the Burning Darkness.” -
Chad Coleman/Mercer Island Reporter Actors Harry Spitzer (left), Anna Levin and Jeremy Howell lead the MIHS cast in “In the Burning Darkness.”
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The Mercer Island High School drama department is exploring new terrain with this year’s winter play, “In the Burning Darkness.” Translated from acclaimed Spanish playwright Antonio Buero Vallejo’s 1950 masterpiece, “En la Ardiente Oscuridad,” the play focuses on a young man’s personal trials with blindness.

Armed with his scathing personality, Ignacio, the protagonist, sees his blindness as nothing more than a burdensome disability. Beneath Ignacio’s anger brews a desperate hope that he will one day regain his sight.

When he enters a Spanish school for the blind, Ignacio is dismayed with his peers for their complacent acceptance of blindness and its boundaries. He refuses to accept the sheltered life in which his schoolmates find comfort. Gradually, the other students fall prey to Ignacio’s bitterness, and their relationships begin to crumble in self-doubt and fear.

“In the Burning Darkness” is a strong and morally difficult play, but the MIHS drama team is ready for it.

According to drama instructor Karen Campbell, the students have already grown from the experience — both as actors and young adults.

“They sense the importance of [this play],” she said. “There are so many different levels of understanding — a teenager’s relationship to blindness, wanting your mind to be sheltered and all of the political and historical ramifications behind this.”

The script for “In the Burning Darkness” was personally recommended to Campbell by the high school Spanish department. Although tracking down an English translation was not easy, when Campbell finally read the piece she was struck by its importance.

The play serves as a social and political allegory of Vallejo’s time. Born in Spain in 1916, Vallejo grew up in a country on the brink of civil war. A young idealist, he pursued theater at the San Fernando School of Fine Arts in Madrid. When civil war broke out in 1936, Vallejo joined the Loyalist army as a medical assistant. The Spaniard later paid for his allegiance, spending six years in prison under the dictatorship of General Francisco Franco.

When he was released in 1949, Vallejo published his first play, “Historia de Una Escalera” (“The Story of a Stairway”), which portrayed the brutality of postwar Spain. The piece won the Premio Lope de Vega prize and launched Vallejo’s career as a playwright.

A year later, Vallejo — one of the few dissidents who did not flee Franco’s oppressive regime — wrote “In the Burning Darkness,” veiling his political outcries beneath the metaphor of blindness.

Infuriated with Spanish society’s passive acceptance of Franco’s totalitarian rule, Vallejo writes these feelings into his blind characters. Through Ignacio, the playwright is able to express his passionate belief in self will and ask some difficult questions about human character, society and the eternal power of hope.

“During our worst moments in life, if there is a tiny bit of hope, that’s what keeps us going forward as human beings,” Campbell said. “Even in the darkest moments of this play there is a little seed of hope. I thought that was a beautiful idea.”

Ambitious to capture the essence of Vallejo’s play, the drama teacher brought her students to visit the Washington State School for the Blind in Vancouver, Wash. Her hope was that the cast would gain a better appreciation for this often misunderstood disability.

The drama team spent a day with students and teachers at the school. They toured the campus, spent lunch socializing with students and even practiced “being blind,” wearing blindfolds and reading braille. The experience, especially the short time spent in darkness, was truly enlightening, Campbell said.

“We wish we could have spent more time with the students, just for the sake of bonding. My students felt drawn to the kids they met,” she said.

One of the most profound things Campbell’s class learned was the many ways through which the blind perceive our world. One drama teacher at the school explained how she would glue pieces of sandpaper to the stage floor, enabling the actors to locate their spots without trouble. This frees the students from using canes, Campbell said, which are often perceived as a stigma today.

The cast brought much of what they experienced in Vancouver back to the MIHS stage. In fact, a few days after their trip, Campbell asked her students to rehearse with blindfolds. The task was more difficult than many expected.

“The kids got frustrated,” Campbell said. “They were scared of falling off the stage, memorizing their lines was more difficult, as well as finding their places. But it was actually a pretty powerful rehearsal.”

Junior Rhiannon Batson, who plays one of two sighted characters in the play, agreed.

“I find it — especially doing the blindfold work — really freeing to be in a situation where you’re not aware of others looking at you,” she said. “Especially for kids in high school. You think about your appearance and how people are viewing you all the time. It’s interesting to think about a group of kids who don’t have that.”

Contemplating her role as one of the few sighted characters in the play, Batson spoke with appreciation.

“It makes you realize that people with sight can take for granted how important physical communication and eye contact are in terms of connecting with others,” she said. “The play is a lot more relevant to our lives than you would think.”

Playwright Antonio Buero Vallejo

One of Spain’s leading playwrights in postwar Spain, Vallejo redefined the traditional tragedy with his liberal political outlook. His moralistic plays often dealt with characters consumed by despair and frustration, who ultimately found redemption in hope. A realist, Vallejo believed that by confronting reality without self-deception, a playwright can raise issues fundamental to human existence and the improvement of society.

In his groundbreaking 1950 play, “En la Ardiente Oscuridad,” Vallejo uses blindness as a metaphor for Spanish society’s passive acceptance of Francisco Franco’s totalitarian rule. As a stage effect, Vallejo darkened the theater to simulate the experience of blindness for his audience. “In the Burning Darkness” was made into an Argentinean film in 1958.

Community Events, April 2014

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