“Eyes for Ears; Hands for Voice”
Mark Medoff’s Children of a Lesser God, which won the Tony for Best Play of the 1978-79 season, was something of a breakthrough in that it used actual deaf or hearing-impaired actors to play characters with those conditions. When the late Phyllis Frelich (one of nine deaf siblings) won the Tony for her performance of Sarah Norman, she put paid to the tradition of hearing actors playing deaf-mute roles. Think, for example, of the title role in the 1940 play Johnny Belinda, the 1948 film of which earned hearing actress Jane Wyman an Oscar.
Sarah, the feisty, individualistic deaf character around whom the play is built, also boosted the career of another deaf actress, Marlee Matlin, who won the Oscar for her performance in the 1986 film version.
Director Kenny Leon’s clunky Broadway revival, which originated last year at the Berkshire Theater Group, introduces yet another passionately expressive deaf actress to the role in the person of Lauren Ridloff who, remarkably, has barely any acting experience. Her engaging performance is the chief reason to see this less than exciting revival of a play whose aging seams are showing.
Medoff’s play stresses the idea that many deaf people insist on being allowed to communicate on their own terms without having to conform to the ways of the hearing world. His chief specimens are Sarah, deaf from birth and unable/unwilling to either speak or (presumably) lip read, and her deaf friend, Orin Dennis (John McGinty, intense), a deaf rights activist, who can do both.
|Joshua Jackson, Anthony Edwards, Lauren Ridloff. Photo: Matthew Murphy.|
Sarah and Orin have known each other since childhood at a state school for the deaf, supervised by the businesslike Mr. Franklin (Anthony Edwards of “E.R.,” colorless). Sarah, 26, now works there as a maid as a way of staying in school while continuing to take some classes. For all Sarah’s deep intelligence, her estranged mother (Kecia Lewis, warmly maternal), whose home Sarah left at 18, once considered her “retarded.” It’s an assessment impossible to believe as having come from the woman Medoff has drawn.
Sarah becomes romantically involved with her thirtyish speech teacher, James Leeds (Joshua Jackson, “The Affair”), a relationship, down to its mildly forced kiss, that should give a 2018 audience a touch of the creepy crawlies. He, for his part, is dedicated to making deaf people become more like hearing ones, regardless of their objections. The resultant marriage between these unlikely lovers turns out to be less than they bargained for.
|Lauren Ridloff, Joshua Jackson. Photo: Matthew Murphy.|
James, in whose memory the episodic play unfolds, struggles to get the reluctant, even defiant Sarah to learn lip reading, which he believes will enable her to get into college or a trade school, thus becoming a productive participant in the hearing world. She, though, feels content with her own way of communicating, appreciating the world inside her silence; she also refuses to do anything she can’t do well.
James’s insistence on breaking through her barriers by teaching her to read lips helps justify all the scenes during which he both speaks to her audibly and via ASL, while also repeating aloud everything that Sarah conveys in sign language. When he speaks to Orin and another student, Lydia (Treshelle Edmond, sweet), he articulates carefully enough so they can read his lips.
|Lauren Ridloff, Joshua Jackson. Photo: Matthew Murphy.|
This is indeed a difficult task for Jackson, who handles its technical requirements unusually well; nonetheless, he isn’t able to make James either real or likable enough to overcome his dogged demands that Sarah overcome her well-grounded reluctance to speak. Moreover, the experience of hearing only his voice saying both James’s lines and Sarah’s grows thin as the monotony grows thicker. The delicate, graceful, sylph-like Ridloff, until the moment that Sarah shockingly breaks forth in awkward speech, must rely only on facial and physical expressions.
If you’ve ever seen a professional ASL signer interpret a speaking person’s words for a deaf audience you’ll know just how magnetically dramatic they can be. Imagine how even more compelling it can be to watch an attractive, fully invested deaf actress playing an emotionally fraught role, using only her face and hands.
|Lauren Ridloff, Kecia Lewis. Photo: Matthew Murphy.|
To further clarify what’s spoken, this production uses supertitles above the proscenium. Now and then, it’s confusing as to which words are James’s and which those of Sarah (when her thoughts aren’t simply designated as “she signs”). More disturbingly, audience members under the balcony at the orchestra’s rear can’t see the titles while those close to the stage have to look up uncomfortably, if they’re even able to see the words at all. Given Derek McLane’s abstract set of freestanding door frames and branchless tree trunks (prettily lit by Mike Baldassari), one wonders why the titles weren’t simply projected on the scenery, where everyone could see them.
|Children of a Lesser God. Photo: Matthew Murphy.|
|Lauren Ridloff, Joshua Jackson, Treshelle Edmond. Photo: Matthew Murphy.|
The play’s focus on the hearing-disabled has inspired performances in many different languages. A Chinese director friend of mine has done two productions in China (I saw his fine 1991 version at the Hong Kong Repertory Theatre), and is planning a third, so Medoff’s children would appear to have many gods.
|John McGinty, Julee Cerda, Lauren Ridloff. Photo: Matthew Murphy.|
The title, by the way, is a quote from Tennyson: “For why is all around us here/As if some lesser god had made the world/But had not force to shape it as he would?” Perhaps the same could be asked of the play and this production.
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