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Stop Sign? Not in Her Vocabulary!

February 28, 2008 By:
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A youngster confronts a mushroom cloud in 'Jericho'

Amid the din of bombs bursting in air in jigsawed "Jericho," Shoshanna Stern's voice can be heard far beyond the black rain that drizzles the geography of TV's only nuked neighborhood.

The fourth-generation member of a deaf family and a member of the Tuesday-night CBS "Jericho" generation that has played Nielsen survivor and been granted immunity because its tribe of treasured fans has spoken, Stern has heard all the accolades applauded her way since assuming the role of Bonnie Richmond.

Her success is a Hollywood sign language of its own far from high atop the hills where the actual sign spells out welcome to visitors. This one -- in which Richmond's character enriches the plutonium-plagued perishables who are Jericho's dwindling denizens of the disjointed Allied States of America -- speaks of a major step taken in the arts for nonhearing actors.

The stunning 27-year-old actress is a stun-gun among explosive revelations that have made the nuclear-gerrymandered Jericho "da bomb" among TV viewers venting their anger elsewhere about a medium not prescient enough to see its own wasteland of a future.

As Bonnie, Shoshanna surely helps give it its fission; she is the lily of lyrical flower power that floats above the pond of perdition that persists in post-nuclear Jericho.

Or is she? With a major plot point to happen to her character in next week's episode, Stern is aware of the war for ratings. But will that save her from the "Jericho" fallout that befalls other good guys of this town without pity?

The actress, also appearing in Showtime's "Weeds," is smokin' hot these days, as high a dramatic highlight as the corn once soared in the mythical Kansas town in which her CBS series is set. If Bonnie Richmond were a real-life neighbor, would the actress who plays her go over to borrow a cup of some radioactive sugar? Would she confide in her?

"Absolutely," says Stern. "There's a strange phenomenon of people choosing to confide in deaf people; I know I'm not alone in this."

A willing ear? "I've had people tell me their life stories at random events like birthday parties or when I'm having a drink at a bar -- even on the dance floor at clubs."

Direct and dynamic, Stern doesn't dance around any topics. "My whole family is like that," she says of her parents and brother and sister, who are "forever curious about other people and their lives, which probably adds to that sense of profound attention."

Attention must be paid this actress, whose start in the business got a lift while still a student at Gallaudet University, called "the only liberal-arts university for deaf people in the world."

Stop sign? Not in her vocabulary, as Stern stands out and up for herself. It was front and center in "Off Centre," where the comely actress snared a role in the CBS series while still studying at school.

Stern herself is a study in protean and professional talent. But the fear she brings to her part as post-nuclear family member is really not that far from her own mental fallout shelter.

"I don't know if I was a precocious child, but I remember being kept awake at night just because of that fear" of nuclear bombs and wars generated during her childhood daze, she recalls.

"I was afraid of something happening to my family and remember feeling like even if it did, there would be nothing I could do about it."

A Blessing After All
Fear of hopelessness -- especially when it comes to family -- is akin to what the rejiggered "Jericho" generates among its soul survivors. At the radioactive rainbow's end of the neighbors' fear, however, is hope and fulfillment, not nuclear waste of wisdom.

"I've come to realize that fear is actually a blessing," reasons Stern. "We have that fear because nothing has happened yet. People living in Europe don't have that fear; they've been bombed, sacked and pillaged already.

"The fact that 'Jericho' is on the air now is a huge indicator that I wasn't alone in feeling that fear, and that it has mutated in a sense. Americans are reacting to that fear; half of them want to go to war and half want to repair the country's relationship with the world."

We are the world -- or not. Political bombshell? "That's definitely a huge part of why the primaries have been so competitive."

Primarily, her own ambitions have thwarted ambushes against a deaf actress making sound impressions in a hearing society.

"I've always been a strange contradiction," she says, "in that I'm equal parts a practical person and a dreamer. I always knew it would be hard."

But hard on herself? Not necessarily, although she is probably shaken, not stirred, in wrongly assuming she couldn't add up to an 007 sexpot; never say never again?

"I know that I will probably never be a Bond girl or a superhero. I also know that there is a new profound interest in things that are different and interesting. So far, it seems like I've proved both sides of myself right."

The rites and rituals of Judaism have had their own role to play. After all, says Stern, "I've always been very aware of how my family had to start from the very bottom up in America."

Up with people in America from downtrodden in Europe, "both sides of my family are originally from Europe and immigrated to America during the Holocaust."

Isn't it rich? They were -- in Europe -- but then "lost everything" upon immigration. But flying the coup took on a special meaning then. "My great-grandfather actually became a chicken farmer when he moved here, and now his sons are doing amazingly well. So I know that if you work hard, you can do anything."

Indeed she got good practice answering an interviewer's questions when she posed the four herself from the Haggadah before family at Passover, where "I always performed at the seder table."

Hide the afikomen? She couldn't hide her talent nor, tellingly, her fondness for Tel Aviv, which she visited when her sister moved there for a bit about a dozen years ago.

While Stern recounts wonderful impressions made by a journey to Jerusalem -- "Visiting the Wailing Wall was an unforgettable experience for me; I felt like I could feel the history within the wall" -- don't expect tears of terror from her own climb up Hollywood's formidable wall topped by a glass ceiling.

"As a deaf child, people are always going to try to protect you, by doing things for you, and that's wrong," says Stern. "The world has limitations for everybody, not just those who can't hear. We have to recognize these limitations, then focus on the things you can do with all the strength you've been given."

Certainly, the public has focused on her role in "Jericho," notably in the "Vox Populi" episode, where the voice of the people was a shout of acclaim for her performance.

"It was great that the writers and producers felt there would be a place for a scene that took place completely and totally in sign language, and without the benefit of any voiceovers or parroting," she recalls of the first season segment.

Its impact was far from peanuts, but then again ... "I've always been a big fan of nuts to begin with," she marvels at the impact a viewer campaign to save the series had in which fans -- referencing a line of dialogue from an episode -- sent tons of nuts to the network in hopes of buttering them up for renewal.

It worked. And getting work as a deaf actress doesn't faze Stern as the second season of "Jericho" rolls along in which viewers are in for the ride of their lives in Bonnie-ville. But ... "Most every character I'm going to play is going to be deaf. There's just no getting around that," she says.

But squaring her character with the plot is a different story.

"Not every one of those characters needs their deafness to be explained. Different people exist in the world without a reason," says Stern, explaining why she's "thrilled they [the show's creators] haven't gone into huge dramatics to explain why Bonnie's deafness has contributed to her community or the storyline."

So what's the story with Stern? She's survived, thrived, despite living in a world defined by society's H-bomb -- "h" standing for hearing. She readily acknowledges the importance another deaf actor -- Marlee Matlin -- has had on her life since playing opposite the Oscar winner on TV's "The Division." But the long and short of it is the role played by her mentor, C.J. Jones, who directed Stern in college and was "the first person who really believed in me as an actor."

Believe it -- Stern's gang of fans is growing. And the young woman of bombed-out "Jericho" -- featured in a Barack Obama video -- can and does relish the importance that a show such as "Jericho," with its tumbling walls of society buttressed by themes of hope, can have. After all, hope "also exemplifies the life of both of my grandmothers, both Holocaust survivors, and knowing what they went through, I often wondered how they could live their lives with such a lack of bitterness."

Sweet, sweet praise for her brave bubbas. Maybe it's the goodness inside -- whether Holocaust survivors or those surviving a nuclear holocaust -- that defines their dares to life.

Indeed, before most of the world bought the farm on "Jericho," Bonnie had her own stake in it as just a go-along. Then, the going got tough.

"Before the bombs dropped, I think Bonnie would have been okay with living in the Richmond farm forever with no sense of real self," says Stern of her character's not knowing anything from atom. "That isn't the case for her anymore."

And Stern makes a case for why others can learn from that introduction of introspective soul-searching that accompanies Richmond's not-so-mundane life now.

"If the Jewish audience resonated with that particular aspect of her," reasons Stern, "then I've done my job." 

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