The title "Switched at Birth" leaves little guesswork about the main subject of a new ABC Family series.Even then, though, there's more to it.
Premiering Monday, June 6, the drama draws together two distinctly different clans once they learn they both brought the wrong baby home from the hospital years ago. The children are in their teens now, and one (portrayed by hard-of-hearing actress Katie Leclerc) is deaf prompting other major changes for her biological parents, played by Lea Thompson ("Back to the Future") and D.W. Moffett.
The other girl (Vanessa Marano, "Gilmore Girls") is the one who discovers the accidental switch, through testing her blood type in chemistry class. The eventual news also stuns the woman who turns out to be her birth mother (Constance Marie, "George Lopez"), a single parent whose money problems inspire the other family to invite her to live in their guesthouse -- thus bringing all of the show's major players into close proximity.
Lucas Grabeel ("High School Musical") and Sean Berdy, who is deaf, are in the regular cast as well. Oscar winner Marlee Matlin, fresh off her run on NBC's "The Celebrity Apprentice," makes recurring appearances as a school counselor with ties to the two families.
A parent of two girls with husband Howard Deutch, who directed her in the 1987 movie "Some Kind of Wonderful," Thompson says she was "attracted to the idea of something mothers can watch with their daughters" in joining the "Switched at Birth" cast. "I've watched ABC Family a lot with them, so it appealed to me that it's on that network, and the story is an interesting one.
"I'm extremely fascinated with nature vs. nurture and which is more powerful, and this explores that a lot. Also, the people involved are really nice and really interested in doing quality work and finding the truth in the situation. That's always a great thing for an actor."
So is learning a new skill for the acting, per Thompson, and that means sign language in this case. "I'm learning as my character does," she notes, "so I'm in a much better position than Constance Marie, who has to jump right in (as Leclerc's presumed mother) and pretend she's completely fluent. There's a never-ending learning curve in getting to understand other people and their points of view."
Leclerc actually is capable of some hearing, and in regular conversation, her nonhalting voice makes it evident she is applying her acting abilities in conveying her "Switched at Birth" alter ego's more severe hearing loss.
"My sister is an ASL (American Sign Language) teacher," Leclerc says, "and she's very involved in the deaf community. She and I sat down at the very beginning of this and talked about what kind of hearing loss my character would have and how we wanted to portray that.
"We kind of mapped out which sounds and letters she would able to say and which she wouldn't, and it was a very tricky thing for me. I didn't want to be insensitive at all. It was a delicate process, but I feel comfortable with it now."
Meniere's disease is the inner-ear disorder Leclerc has. "I've played deaf characters a few times now, and a lot of times, people are surprised. They'll go, 'Wait, she's not deaf?' No, I'm hard of hearing. There are four symptoms: pressure in the ear, ringing in the ear, vertigo -- which is probably the most difficult to deal with, especially if it happens on a set -- and fluctuating hearing loss. At any given moment, my hearing can just drop out."
"Switched at Birth" is proving to be a highly beneficial work experience for Leclerc. She terms her co-stars and producers "very understanding. I've been very lucky so far, since I've only had one or two attacks while on set. I'll just sit down, and they're very sweet; they'll say, 'Can we get you any water? Anything?' The condition worsens as you get older, but for right now, my attacks have only lasted from 20 minutes to an hour. It's sort of been an obstacle, but we all can work around it."
The actors aren't the only ones adjusting to communicating with Leclerc, Berdy and Matlin. "The entire crew is learning sign language," Thompson reports," one bit at a time, and it's really beautiful to see. We're all talking with our hands a lot more than we used to. It's a good thing this isn't a feature film, because hands would be coming at you in all the close-ups!"
Thompson adds "Switched at Birth" poses other differentials between its two families, beyond the matter of hearing.
"I love that the series is entertaining," she says, "but it also has a consciousness-raising element. The audience gets to understand the deaf culture and the concerns and the prejudices involved, but other elements like class and race also are explored. That's why I like doing drama. It helps us work out issues in our own heads to see them depicted dramatically."