REVIEW: “Children of a Lesser God”
There are a handful of plays from the late 1970s that were groundbreaking hits in their time, winning major awards and enjoying long runs on Broadway, but today just don’t seem to hold up—among them I include “Da” (1978), “The Elephant Man” (1979), and “Children of a Lesser God” (1980).
While successfully adapted for the screen in 1986—memorably making Marlee Matlin the first, and to date, only deaf Oscar winner—the first (and perhaps only) Broadway revival of “Children of a Lesser God” opened last night at Studio 54 in a plodding and clinical production directed by Kenny Leon (“A Raisin in the Sun”), following a pre-Broadway run at Berkshire Theatre Group last summer. Joshua Jackson (“Dawson’s Creek”) and Lauren Ridloff (“Wonderstruck”) repeat their acclaimed performances, both in their Broadway debuts.
In the play, James Leeds (Mr. Jackson) is a teacher at a state school for the deaf on a singular mission to help his students, of varying ability, develop their speaking voices. Mercurial, charming, and easy-going, Mr. Jackson is a natural fit for the role, and his ASL skills are impressive. Ms. Ridloff, a deaf actor, plays Sarah Norman, a janitor and reluctant former student at the school who refuses to try using her voice, defending sign language and the sanctity of deaf culture and identity. Ms. Ridloff has a stunning stage presence, and is deft at playing a woman both outwardly confident and inwardly wounded. She is a standout in an otherwise unremarkable production.
James and Sarah fall in love and then marry. Or at least that’s what the audience is supposed to believe. I was not convinced, at any point, of the supposed romance between these two wildly different characters. Though each is compelling on their own, the chemistry between Mr. Jackson and Ms. Ridloff is non-existent, and the relationship itself is facially problematic. James is in a position of power, both as a teacher and as someone who can hear in a deaf community. For her part, Sarah is a victim of past sexual abuse, kept silent by a self-imposed refusal to do things she can’t do well—like speaking. Though capable, she is ashamed of how she might sound, rendering her vulnerable and dependent upon others.
For all their communication, neither seems to really listen to or hear the other. Compounding things is the frustrating convention of playwright Mark Medoff’s text. Sarah does not speak, and so almost the entirety of the play consists of James speaking to Sarah, she signing a reply, and he repeating aloud what she has just signed. Not only is this entirely unrealistic, since they are both fluent in sign language, but it gets both confusing—with pronoun switches of “I” and “you”—and tiring. Think one-sided stage telephone conversation, but for two hours and twenty minutes.
In a laudable effort to make the play more accessible, supertitles are projected above the stage, and made available via the GalaPro app (ASL interpreters will also sign at select performances). But even so, Sarah’s lines are never directly transcribed, only James’ interpretations. Songs by Stevie Wonder and Earth Wind and Fire—not to mention a snippet of the theme song from “The Jeffersons”—and spot-on period costumes by Dede Ayite clearly establish a late-1970s time setting, but nothing about the production indicates that it “takes place in the mind of James Leeds” (played by Mr. Jackson), as the Playbill instructs. I said “really?” out loud to myself upon reading this after seeing the play, but I suppose it explains why we only ever hear James’ interpretations, and why the atypically garish set by Derek McLane is so amorphous.
The debate about “mainstreaming” deaf people through the use of speech therapy, a key element of the conflict, remains a hot topic today, but, fundamentally, “Children of a Lesser God” is a love story. Without the love, though, it’s reduced to a bloated tale of a troubling, borderline predatory relationship set against the backdrop of a debate about deaf culture, identity, and autonomy that is not explored deeply enough to stand on its own.
In one notable move, Mr. Leon adds an intriguing layer by casting women of color in all the female roles. Sarah, her mother (Kecia Lewis), and a school peer, Lydia (Treshelle Edmond), are all African American, and the lawyer who comes in to take up a lawsuit on behalf of the deaf students, Edna Klein (Julee Cerda), is Asian American. Mr. Leon smartly notices and accentuates that the men in the play—all white in this production—are constantly speaking for (literally in the case of James) or interrupting the women, likely an unintentional vestige of its white male author. His casting makes a subtle, but effective, statement that enriches the play’s central theme about both listening and being heard. It is not, however, enough to save this production nor the staleness of the play itself.
What might have been groundbreaking in 1980, here comes across as rather dully dramatic and troubling in its main relationship dynamic, despite the remaining temporal resonance of the subject matter and a steady, if mismatched, pair of leading performances.
Bottom Line: “Children of a Lesser God” is one play whose sell-by date has definitely passed; even given embers of a still burning debate about deaf culture and identity, this plodding and clinical revival is dull, stale, unremarkable, and problematic in its treatment of a relationship between a deaf student and her teacher. Despite strong performances by TV’s Joshua Jackson and deaf actor Lauren Ridloff, skip this one.
“Children of a Lesser God”
254 West 54th Street
New York, NY 10019
Running Time: 2 hours, 20 minutes (one intermission)
Opening Night: April 11, 2018
Final Performance: open run