Tackling a silent world with showmanship and song

Randy Rutherford is almost completely deaf. But you wouldn't know it. And that's part of the problem. "My ears should be in wheelchairs," said the Californian playwright, actor and musician.

Randy Rutherford is almost completely deaf.

But you wouldn’t know it.

And that’s part of the problem.

“My ears should be in wheelchairs,” said the Californian playwright, actor and musician.

“Because people can’t tell how deaf I am, not even my girlfriend.”

Living with his invisible disability is like “watching a party from behind a plate glass window,” he said.

“I’m cut off from the social aspect of the world – everyone’s speaking gibberish.”

Every year, Rutherford’s world gets a little more muted.

Right now, he’s lost 70 per cent of his hearing in both ears.

“A blind person loses their connection to objects and things,” he said, quoting Helen Keller.

“But a deaf person loses their connection to people.”

To escape this silent solitude, Rutherford turned to theatre.

“For the 90 minutes I’m onstage interacting with people, I’m not alone,” he said.

“In the intimacy of strangers, I transcend my disability.”

Rutherford has always been a storyteller.

“As a kid I was a motor mouth,” he said.

“My mother used to say, ‘Sweetie, just skip the story and tell me how much money you want?’”

He also used to sing snippets of songs to himself, growing up in a tiny mining town in the mountains of California.

“It was almost like my singing voice was my imaginary friend,” he said.

Rutherford was a loner who lived in fear of his stepdad, a violent man who liked to drink.

A self-described runt and late bloomer, he was also fearful of the older kids at school, defending himself with comedy.

“I tried to make them laugh, so then maybe they wouldn’t beat me up,” he said.

Life took a turn after the family moved to Reno to help Rutherford’s stepdad get over his drinking problem.

“I don’t know why we thought moving to Reno would help,” he said with a laugh.

Predictably, the drinking got worse and Rutherford and his mom ended up escaping in the night, after his stepdad got gun crazy and threatened to shoot his mom.

“My mom wanted to be a movie star,” said Rutherford.

“She was always singing,” he said, breaking into ‘You’ve got to give a little, take a little,’ … in the lobby of the Westmark.

As he grew older, and deafer, Rutherford started writing about the twists and turns his life has taken.

Staged as one-man shows, these autobiographical one acts mix storytelling with comedy and song.

His most recent play, Singing at the Edge of the World is about Rutherford’s progressive hearing loss.

But the show he’s doing in Whitehorse this week is an earlier snippet of his life.

It starts off just after he and his mom ran away from his abusive stepdad.

They’re living at his uncle’s in Ohio and Rutherford’s sleeping on a cot in the attic when his mom decides to bundle him off to live with a big brother he didn’t even know he had.

The big brother in question “didn’t have the same mother or the same father as me,” said Rutherford.

“But we both had the same stepdad at different points.

“It’s complicated.”

The play that came out of this encounter, My Brother Sings Like Roy Orbison, is a love letter to this big brother.

The second in a series of four autobiographical one-acts written and performed by Rutherford, it picks up where the first play let off, at a snowy bus stop in Ohio.

Fifteen-year-old Rutherford is about to get on a Greyhound and travel across the US to Oregon to stay with his non-brother.

“I was this naif,” he said.

“And when I got off the bus, there was this guy with this ‘65 cherry red convertible who acted like James Dean and sang like Roy Orbison.”

Rutherford never met his father, and his stepdad was not the best role model.

“And I didn’t realize it then, but my brother rescued me,” he said.

“Riding in that Corvette convertible was a rite of passage for me.

“He became my father.”

The play starts out a lot like American Graffiti with drag races, girls and plenty of 1950s rock and roll.

And the performance is full of humour and music – the two things that helped Rutherford through his young life.

But when his big brother decides to join the US Marine Corps and go to Vietnam, the tone changes.

“It looks at how war changes people’s lives and really fractures relationships and families,” said Rutherford.

Still, the play ends with hope, he said.

After watching him perform, audience members often ask if he’s really deaf.

“It’s because I learned to speak and play guitar before I lost my hearing,” he said.

“It’s all muscle memory.”

My Brother Sings Like Roy Orbison leaves off just before Rutherford heads to Alaska to “become a folk singer,” the subject of his third autobiographical play, One Frigid Shiny Knight.

Coming to the Yukon for the first time has brought back memories.

“It’s a lot like Alaska,” he said.

“Maybe a bit windier.”

My Brother Sings Like Roy Orbison runs tonight and tomorrow night at the Old Fire Hall in Whitehorse. Performances start at 7:30 p.m.

Rutherford is also selling his watercolours at the shows.

“When my hearing started to go, I wasn’t sure I’d be able to perform or sing anymore,” he said.

But so far, he’s been able to continue sharing his stories with strangers.

“This interaction with people makes me feel like I’m not alone,” he said.

“For the 90 minutes I’m onstage, I’m orchestrating this embrace.”

Contact Genesee Keevil at