2015-12-17 / Front Page

Maher Center Presents

By James Merolla


Salve student Claire Donnelly leads clients of the James L. Maher Center in signing traditional Christmas carols and holiday songs during a reheasal for the center's Dec. 19 "Christmas in Sign" (Christmas in Sign as shown in the headline) performance at the Casino Theatre. Salve student Claire Donnelly leads clients of the James L. Maher Center in signing traditional Christmas carols and holiday songs during a reheasal for the center's Dec. 19 "Christmas in Sign" (Christmas in Sign as shown in the headline) performance at the Casino Theatre.

“Bigger arms! Hold that! Remember that. Don’t forget. Wider, wider. Use your fingers in a circle.”

“Shake your arms out. Great! Goose bumps! I’m getting goose bumps.”

Twenty people raise their hands almost simultaneously and, given their various positions and abilities, this is no small feat.

For members of the James L. Maher Center, a big hand after a song directly depends on bigger hands cutting the air during it.

For the 27th year, clients of the center will show an amazing ability to adapt by “singing” the lyrics of 13 holiday and Christmas songs in sign language, a challenging skill they have spent weeks learning before their annual theater performance.

Twenty signers of varying abilities have come together as one under the tutelage of Michael Thombs, Ph.D., a Salve Regina University professor who – for the 15th year – has united a team of 10 volunteers, including two of his college sign language students, to transform fingers, hands, wrists, and arms into lyric storytelling.

According to its vision statement, the Maher Center fosters independence and opportunities, promotes dignity, and advances integration and social engagement for individuals with developmental or other disabilities through customized programs designed to meet diversified needs.

This includes putting on what should be one heck of a “Christmas in Sign” show on Saturday, Dec. 19, at the Casino Theatre at 5 p.m.

“This is the highlight of the year,” said Steve Fletcher, one of Thombs’ lead assistants, who, along with his daughter, has documented the rehearsal process with hundreds of photos and short videos. “What Mike and his volunteers have put together is amazing and so meaningful for the participants.”

Thombs, looking like an enthusiastic orchestra conductor from a central podium, speaks softly but carries a big shtick. Forty eyes focus on his circular hands which, during the show, will be encased like the others in pure whites gloves that reflect Thombs’ movements under fluorescent light, making for a visceral, visual musical sight.

Thombs reminds his cast of their ample prop list – antlers, snow, snowballs, white socks, white sneakers and more – to go along with the holiday classics that will be performed, including “Frosty the Snowman,” “Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer,” and “Silent Night.”

A particular challenge will be “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” which, by the math, multiplying the many days and repetitive lyrics, requires a total of 364 separate arm movements to “sing” the song.

“Shake your arms out!” says Thombs, doing the same, after finishing “Twelve Days.”

“Wow, that’s a workout!”

With 15 years at the helm, the professor of sign first worked under show founder Mary Francis and took over when she retired.

“This is a hoot,” said Thombs, of his time leading the program. “These are tremendous people learning sign and they understand how important it is to perform and give something to an audience.

“They understand how important it is as actors performing in a sacrificial role,” he added. “They are in hoods, they are hot, they can’t see very well, they might fall, but they suck it up and perform. Every year they bring the house down. When they finish, there isn’t a dry eye in the house.”

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