From left: Amanda Welly, Michael Creason and Christina Whitehouse-Suggs sign their parts during a rehearsal for “Dear Evan Hansen.” (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

August 15 at 10:00 AM

In a theater setting, sign-language interpretation is about more than words. It’s also about delivering the same emotional wallop to deaf audiences as to the hearing.

In the musical “Dear Evan Hansen,” where a misfit teenager edges his way into a grieving family’s life through a string of lies, there’s a lot of emotional walloping going on, by turns aching, searing and cathartic. The song “Disappear,” for instance, is Evan’s cry against outsiderhood, and if the audience is going to follow this stumbling, mumbling young man on his chaotic journey, it needs to understand the purity of heart that he conveys in this song, despite his wrongful actions. 

On a recent Saturday in a studio at the Kennedy Center, where the touring version of the Tony-winning musical is in the midst of a five-week run, sign-language interpreter Michael Creason and two colleagues are working out their translation. Their task is to convey to deaf patrons not only the words but also the feelings — the soul-searching, theater-filling roar of Evan’s yearning, so desperate that it hardens into a resolve as poignant as it is immoral. 

Their job, in fact, is not really about words. It’s about using one art — the swift, fluid American Sign Language, perhaps not properly an art but indisputably beautiful and expressive — to render another, which has double meanings and ambiguities all its own. In many cases, a strict word-for-word decoding would ruin the magic.

“No one deserves to be forgotten/ No one deserves to disappear,” leading actor Ben Levi Ross sings in the matinee performance, which is being live-streamed into the rehearsal studio.

 Creason sweeps an arm in front of him, as if he’s gesturing to multitudes in the distance. Continuing the same smooth motion, he raises a bent finger — like one lonely, faltering soul — then lets the hand drop. The sense of crushed hope and insignificance in that sequence, of plunging out of view while the world goes on, is clear.