by Barbara Waldinger
Who are the children of a lesser god?
Mark Medoff’s Children of a Lesser God, a play that focuses on the struggles of deaf people to deal with society at large, is as relevant to the problems facing minorities today as it was in the aftermath of the civil rights movement. It captured the Tony award for Best Play in 1980 and for its two leads, John Rubenstein and Phyllis Frelich. (Frelich was the first deaf performer to be so honored, and when the movie adaptation came out a few years later, Marlee Matlin became the first deaf actress to win an Academy Award.) Now the play is being revived to open the Berkshire Theatre Group’s 89th season, with direction by Tony-winner Kenny Leon, featuring Joshua Jackson and Lauren Ridloff.
A love story between a male teacher at a school for the deaf, and a female former student (subsequently a custodian at the school), the play seeks to make a case for deaf rights. The deaf woman Sarah Norman (Ridloff), takes a stand: she stubbornly, even angrily, refuses to learn to lip read or to speak. Graceful, elegant and breathtakingly expressive in her signs, Sarah understandably fears how she will look and sound if she vocalizes. She has never needed language, having lived in this cocoon-like school since the age of five, and having engaged in numerous sexual escapades that did not depend on language. The dedicated teacher James Leeds (Jackson), is determined to persuade Sarah, with whom he has fallen in love, to join the speaking world, which will offer her many more opportunities in life. On the classroom blackboard (which slides on and off the set) is written: “Speech is not a specious but a sacred sanction secured by solemn sacrifice.” He promises that with his help, Sarah will no longer be dependent on others to speak for her.
At first it is difficult to understand why Sarah won’t allow herself to be taught by this sympathetic and dedicated educator, especially since two other students (played by the hearing-impaired actors Treshelle Edmond and John McGinty) both speak and read lips, as well as sign. But over time we begin to appreciate Sarah’s point of view. The bright and rebellious Orin Dennis (McGinty), who enlists a lawyer to help fight injustice in the school, explains that deaf people don’t want to conform to the hearing world. Why are they regarded as inferior to those who can hear? Teachers pretend to help them, but they are really just glorifying themselves. Why are there no deaf teachers in the school? Their ability to sign would be infinitely superior, as evidenced by James’ difficulty with that skill. Sarah regards her deafness as a “silence filled with sound.” Outside sound is of so little importance to her that she hopes any children she gives birth to will be deaf. For his part, James cannot live without sound or music, and he finds the idea of fathering deaf children horrifying. Neither he nor Sarah is willing or able to live in the other’s world. Is their relationship doomed?
Open Captioning (a text display) is scheduled for every performance of Children of a Lesser God at the Fitzpatrick Main Stage for those who call to reserve in advance, and certain performances are ASL interpreted. Opening night (June 24th) was filled with audience members who communicated in sign language.
Director Kenny Leon has assembled a design team of Broadway/Off Broadway veterans. Derek McLane’s set is exceptional. Simple, abstract and functional, the stage features three arches with a strip of neon light along their insides, another surrounding the proscenium, and three benches. The ever-changing lighting, designed by Mike Baldassari, opens with baby blue and orange. Perhaps the ability to see these gorgeous colors is emphasized here to make up for the inability of some of the characters to hear. Sound designer Nevin Steinberg is responsible for the variety of songs and sounds heard during the transitions between scenes and at the opening and closing of the performance. Dede M. Ayite’s costumes express the essence of each character.
Leon’s minimalist production avoids props, which are mimed when necessary. Though Ridloff seems completely comfortable in her role, Jackson has a more difficult task, as he had to learn to use sign language. (We are told by knowledgeable audience members that he did this quite well.) In addition, the playwright’s conceit is that James translates Sarah’s communications into spoken English. Perhaps his need to hear sound, even the sound of his own voice, explains this behavior, but we cannot help but think it is primarily there for the benefit of the audience. Consequently, Mr. Jackson does triple duty: he delivers his own lines, translates Sarah’s, and serves as the play’s narrator.
McGinty is fine as the firebrand Orin, jealous of Sarah’s relationship with James, and furious because she is so blinded by her love that she seems to lose interest in joining the fight for their rights. Edmond’s Lydia provides comic relief as a flirtatious student who tries to attract James’ attention. We feel for Sarah’s mother (Kecia Lewis), who travels a wide arc in just a few scenes, from a frustrated parent who could not communicate with a daughter she deemed retarded, to a mother reconciled with a daughter now ready to accept her love. Julee Cerda, as the attorney, allows us to feel her discomfort as she tries to understand and communicate with her hearing-impaired clients. Stephen Spinella plays the head of the school with such confidence and wry humor that we revel in every moment he is onstage.
Children of a Lesser God could have benefited from some judicious cutting, running two hours and forty-five minutes with intermission. The arguments of Sarah and James about the relative advantages of speech are overlong; we welcome the entrance of other characters. One wonders whether this play is primarily a love story or a polemic in favor of deaf rights. Can a play be successful as both? Despite its shortcomings, kudos are due to the Berkshire Theatre Group for tackling a play that dares to tell hearing theatre-goers that perhaps it is they who may be the children of a lesser god.
Children of a Lesser God runs from June 22—July 22 at The Fitzpatrick Main Stage. For tickets call 413-997-4444 or online at www.BerkshireTheatreGroup.org.
Hal Luftig Company and Richards/Climan, Inc. present Children of a Lesser God by Mark Medoff. Cast (in order of appearance): Lauren Ridloff (Sarah Norman), Joshua Jackson (James Leeds), John McGinty (Orin Dennis), Stephen Spinella (Mr. Franklin), Kecia Lewis (Mrs. Norman), Treshelle Edmond (Lydia), Julee Creda (Edna Klein). Director: Kenny Leon, Scenic Designer: Derek McLane, Costume Designer: Dede M. Ayite, Lighting Designer: Mike Baldassari, Sound Designer: Nevin Steinberg, Director of Artistic Sign Language: Alexandria Wailes, Vocal Coach: Blake Segal, ASL Interpreters: Candace Broecker-Penn, Dylan Geil, Joan Wattman, Production Stage Manager: Kamra A. Jacobs. Running Time: Two hours and forty-five minutes, including intermission; at The Fitzpatrick Main Stage (83 East Main Street, Stockbridge) from June 22; closing July 22.