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Children of a Lesser God – Owning One’s Identity

“For why is all around us here / As if some lesser god had made the world” Tennyson

 The first Broadway play to feature sign language was William Gibson’s The Miracle Worker which garnered four Tony Awards in 1959. Ann Bancroft, who played teacher Annie Sullivan to Patty Duke’s Helen Keller, and Lighting Designer David Hayes were instrumental in petitioning the government to fund a National Theater of the Deaf which was established 7 years later. Titled “of” the deaf not “for” the deaf, the group crosses a divide between hearing and deaf audiences.

It was 1980 before Mark Medoff’s Children of a Lesser God featured a deaf actor in a hearing cast. Written for and partly based on the relationship deaf actor Phyllis Frelich had with her husband, the play went mainstream and won the Tony. Deaf actor Marlee Matlin earned an Oscar for the film role of Sarah Norman.

It would be years before Deaf West’s 2015 revival of Spring Awakening exploded onto an entire stage of contemporary theater with the richness of alternate expression/ simultaneous enactment. Perhaps it was that success that opened the door to 14-year-old deaf actor Millicent Simmonds who made her debut in the films Wonderstruck and A Quiet Place.  

Carol Paddon, an advisor Wonderstruck, was born deaf to deaf parents and grew up in deaf culture. “It’s hard for hearing actors to look deaf …,” Ms. Padden said, “Since American Sign Language is not just a finger alphabet but a system of expression employing the whole body.” We had a taste of this in the extraordinary Spring Awakening, but you may never see a better example of the illuminating explanation than Lauren Ridloff ‘s eloquent, demonstrative performance in this production.

Joshua Jackson, Anthony Edwards, Lauren Ridloff

This play also helps us understand that with deafness comes a different way of thinking just as it does with any spoken language. Direct translation reveals a world of invented vocabulary implying meaning other than that to which we’re accustomed.

Super titles of spoken dialogue are projected over the proscenium. That which is signed is predominantly spoken by James, the character who is listening.

26 year-old Sarah Norman (Lauren Ridloff ) was deposited at a home for the deaf twenty years ago. A defiant child in an era when doctors often assumed those born without hearing were also mentally deficient, her single mother couldn’t cope. Sarah is, in fact, smart, perceptive, and articulate. While others learn to read lips and speak, however, she clings to sign as an inherent part of her identity, something in which she communicates with confidence. The young woman helps earn her keep by acting as a maid at the facility.

Mr. Franklin (the always reliable, naturalistic Anthony Edwards in his Broadway debut) welcomes new teacher James Leeds (Joshua Jackson), a patient altruistic man who spent time in the Peace Corps and retains a wry, loosey goosey, can-do attitude. We first meet Leeds coaching Orin Dennis (deaf, speaking actor John McGinty) an activist for deaf rights working hard to master oral language. McGinty is thoroughly credible in the fiery role; sometimes intelligible at others aided by the titles above.

Lauren Ridloff, Joshua Jackson and Treshelle Edmond

A second student, Lydia (the excellent, deaf and speaking Treshelle Edmond), is also committed to verbally interacting. Part of this impetus comes from her infatuation with James. Sarah is the tough case passed from new teacher to new teacher without effecting change.

In the process of trying to reach Sarah, to persuade her life will be emphatically wider and richer should she learn to speak or at least lip read, James grows intrigued, attracted, and finally in love with his student. To allow emotional intimacy, Sarah must not only meet him half way, but also let go of a painful, understandably distrusting childhood.

The joyfully romantic relationship becomes an endless track of hurdles. Sacrifices are willingly made, but life becomes fraught, exhausting. With the best of intentions, neither strong personality gives up basic instincts. Sarah is also peripherally torn by Orin’s insistence she represent a minority that should be advocating for themselves.

John McGinty, Julee Cerda and Lauren Ridloff

More valid questions are raised than answers conjectured. Playwright Mark Medoff is wise enough not to inject platitudes or assume simple answers. We’re given a glimpse into another world. This is not, however, a polemic. To those reviewers who have tried to see the play through a contemporary lens of gender politics, I say nonsense! This is a love story in which neither character is a cliché. Compromise is necessary in any relationship. In the end, neither conforms to sociological type.

Joshua Jackson is marvelous as James Leeds. Hands are fluent and swift, interpretation sounds as if he’s hearing in real time, reaction is paced to naturally coincide. Try rubbing your stomach, patting your head and walking in rhythm. Jackson swings from intense focus on fellow characters to internal reflection with ease and grace. He’s utterly sympathetic.

It’s Lauren Ridloff’s performance round which the play spins. The compelling actress is at the same time grounded and incandescent. She moves like a dancer and invests emotion in her whole being. The role seems to have been written for her.

Director Kenny Leon handles his players with infinite finesse. Anger is visceral, frustration palpable, hurt and joy empathetic. Faces and body language are paramount. The play evolves with a real feeling of history- we believe what came before and wonder what will happen after curtain. Pacing is pitch perfect. Discussion will likely ensue.

The program says this chronicle takes place in James’s mind. I don’t recall this in either its first outing on Broadway or the film. Nor do I feel it necessary despite being a flashback. In keeping with the premise, Derek McLane’s Set is comprised of neon doorways and utterly minimal furniture. While I appreciate Lighting Designer Mike Baldassari’s aesthetic collaborative skill, there’s realism here we’re almost forced to take a step away from.

Also featuring Kecia Lewis as Sarah’s frustrated mother and Julee Cerda as a right-minded lawyer Orin conscripts to help the cause. Both are able performers.

Photos by Matthew Murphy
Opening: Lauren Ridloff and Joshua Jackson

Children of A Lesser God by Mark Medoff
Directed by Kenny Leon
Studio 54
254 West 54th Street

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