Review: ‘Children of a Lesser God’ Continues To Provoke Discussion of How To Be Heard
By Diana Mott, Contributing Writer, April 12, 2018
The much anticipated revival of Children of a Lesser God is a testament to the timelessness of a story about the human struggle to connect and to communicate. Mark Medoff’s Tony, Drama Desk and Olivier Award-winning play made its debut on Broadway almost 40 years ago, and director Kenny Leon, who won a Tony for his 2014 revival of A Raisin in the Sun, brings new life to a story that takes place in a cloistered environment yet has universal appeal.
At its heart, Children of a Lesser God is a love story. James Leeds (Joshua Jackson) is an idealistic hearing teacher at a boarding school that teaches non-hearing students to “speak” and lip read, espousing the philosophy that they must learn the language of the speaking world in order to become a part of it. Fresh from the Peace Corps, James prides himself on his progressive thinking, his humor, and his jokey familiarity with his students.
He is immediately attracted to the beautiful, mysterious Sarah (played with astonishing ferocity by Lauren Ridloff), a 26 year-old former student who works as a cleaning woman at the school. Once one of the school’s brightest students, Sarah refuses to learn to speak, choosing not to assimilate into a hearing world that will deem her inferior. She chooses the safety and isolation of the school whose philosophy she essentially rejected and a job where very little communication is required. James is fascinated and challenged by Sarah and one of their early scenes together playfully reveals the shifting dynamics of two people falling in love. They are on their first date at an Italian restaurant and James recommends the veal piccata. Unaccustomed to going out to eat, Sarah asks him what it is, and with a flurry of signing and fumbling speech, he arrives at “cowbaby sauteed in butter,” making him look foolish for suggesting it. Once the food arrives he is distrubed by the disappearance of conversation until the pupil patiently explains that it is hard for her to “talk” when her hands are busy.
As written by playwirght Mark Medoff and portrayed by Ms Ridloff, Sarah is so much more complex and nuanced than a janitor who can’t face life outside the school and, though she comes to love James, she refuses to compromise when it comes to how she makes her way in the world. Though James argues that she will always be dependent on someone, “and you always will for the rest of your life until you learn to speak,” by the end of the first act, he still is able to tell her that he loves her “for having the strength to be (her)self.”
This love is wrenched apart when one of James’s speaking students (the very capaple John McGinty) enlists Sarah to be a part of his discrimination lawsuit at the school, and the achingly beautiful speech Sarah writes and practices for James expresses the great divide between them and all of us on this human journey of loving and “hearing” one another. “For all my life, I have been the creation of other people,” Sarah laments. She makes the sign for “to connect,” interlinking the fingers of both hands moving them, “between us like this. Now it means so much more. Now it means to be joined in a shared relationship, to be individual yet as one.”
Mr. Jackson has the difficult task of speaking for himself and for Sarah in addition to signing, which he learned for this production. The super titles are appropriately disorienting; I found myself looking to them for interpretation of the signed speech, when they are meant for the non-hearing audience. Thus, we are forced to accept James as a reliable interpreter for Sarah. Fortunately for us, Ridloff’s passionate performance transcends spoken language.
The weakness of the play may be the secondary characters who sometimes feel like superficial foils created to provide friction. Lydia (Treshelle Edmond) is too childish to pose a believeable temptation or even a plausible distraction to James. The headmaster, Mr. Franklin (Anthony Edwards), represents the didactic paternalistic approach to educating non-hearing students. An exception is Sarah’s mother, played with equal parts strength and tenderness by Kecia Lewis, who provides us with some insight into what makes Sarah who she is.
The set design by Derk McLane is startlingly simple: white walls, three doorways that are outlined in neon and very few props. The musical interludes, a mixture of 70s pop hits and original music by Branford Marsalis punctuate the scenes, both playfully and pointedly. The costume design by Dede Ayite evokes the time of bell-bottoms and peasant tops and platform shoes.
Children of a Lesser God seemed both fresh and ground-breaking when it opened in 1980. Cochlear implants were only in the very early phase of development and the congressional report recommending ASL as the primary medium for language instruction had yet to come out. But, the complex issues between the hearing and non-hearing world still exist and, as this revival vividly conveys, the need to be heard in one’s own voice remains powerful and relevant.
Children of a Lesser God at Studio 54, 254 West 54th Street, for an open-end run. Running time 2 hours 20 minutes. Written by Mark Medoff. Directed by Kenny Leon; scenic design by Derek McLane; costume design by Dede Ayite; lighting design by Mike Baldassari; sound design by Jill BC Du Boff; director of artistic sign language: Alexandria Wailes; orignial music by Branford Marsalis.
Cast: Joshua Jackson, Lauren Ridloff, Anthony Edwards, Kecia Lewis, John McGinty, Treshell Edmond, and Julee Cerda.
Cover: Lauren Ridloff and Joshua Jackson in ‘Children of a Lesser God;’ photo: Matthew Murphy.