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A CurtainUp Review
Children of a Lesser God
For all my life I have been the creation of other peoplel. — Sarah
Joshua Jackson and Lauren Ridloff
Joshua Jackson and Lauren Ridloff (photo credit: Matthew Murray)
here is plenty that is commendable and rewarding about this first Broadway revival of Mark Medoff's 1980 Tony Award-winning play Children of a Lesser God. There are, however, aspects of this production that fail to reignite the impassioned discourse and the driving sexuality that propel the play that is observed in the memory of a speech therapist who falls in love with a deaf woman.

Aside from the limited run of an Off Broadway production in 2006, this well-regarded play is one of the few in the contemporary dramatic canon of its time to deal with the significant physical disability of a major character. New techniques in teaching and communicating with the hearing impaired may, however, also be at odds with what is shown in the play.

Children of a Lesser God was most recently produced by the Berkshire Theatre Group. That production, with its two leading players Joshua Jackson and Lauren Ridloff continuing their roles under the direction of Kenny Leon, has been transferred to Studio 54. Except for the final scenes, this is a mostly mild-mannered staging of a play that begs for more emotional credibility from the two the leads who lack the spark to make us care. What is essentially missing from the two leads despite their earnestness is any discernible chemistry. It is to a large extent what powered the passionate but also tumultuous relationship that was so indelibly created by the play's original stars John Rubinstein (Tony Award) and Phyllis Frelich. Their attraction for each other was also palpable in the highly praised film version in 1986 with William Hurt as the teacher and Academy Award-winner Marlee Matlin as the woman.

Designers Derek McLane (scenic) and Mike Baldassari (lighting) have effectively transferred their abstracted settings and atmospherics designated to take place within the mind of the teacher/therapist. There is visual beauty in the luminescent mindscape: a forest of door frames and barren trees. Beautiful as is the setting, the action, however, often gets a bit lost even if intentionally fragmented within it.

Best known for his starring role in the Golden Globe Award-winning television series The Affair, Joshua Jackson is personable enough as James Leeds and is commendably (as he must be) in his use of American Sign Language. What is never clear or given time to unfold is why he is motivated to initiate a romantic liaison with the antagonistic Sarah Norman.

Sara has psychological issues to be sure and she uses her position as a maid at a State School for the Deaf as an excuse to remain silent and refuse therapy that might help her to speak. Ridloff is excellent in those scenes in which her pent up emotions can be seen in her expressively executed ASL. The actress, who made a splash in Todd Haynes well-received 2017 film Wonderstruck, effectively serves Children of a Lesser God as a wave of heart-felt immediacy. She's at her peak near the end of the play when we see how empowering is Sarah's choice to be her own voice even at the risk of ending her relationship with Norman.

Up until the resolution, it is a task for us to remain committed to their signing battles and as well to those around them fighting their own wars. Kecia Lewis is a blistering presence as Sarah's estranged frustrated mother unable to get past her own admitted limitations as the parent of a deaf child. There is a solid performance from John McGinty as Orin Dennis, Sarah's friend and school activist who is pushing for more representation at the school by and for the deaf. He gets a little help from the mostly nonplussed unintentionally patronizing lawyer as well-played by Julee Cerda. Anthony Edwards is stolidly ambivalent as the school's head supervisor. Tresselle Edmond has some amusing moments as the flirtatious deaf student Lydia.

Children of a Lesser God has certainly earned the right to have the excellent overhead super titles and expert signers for the deaf at every performance. If Kenny Leon's direction of the play and its players is no more than arrestingly tasteful it still doesn't diminish Medoff's theme that the world of sound and the world of silence have the right to be extraordinarily worlds apart.

Editor's Note:
A more recent and much lauded play featuring major characters dealing with deafness was Tribes which Curtainup reviewed when it premiered in London, on Broadway and in the Berkshires. Links to those reviews below.
Tribes in London
Tribes in New York
Tribes in the Berkshires

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Directed Kenny Leon
Cast: Joshua Jackson (James Leeds), Lauren Ridloff (Sarah Norman), Kecia Lewis (Mrs. Norman), Julee Cerda (Edna Klein), Treshelle Edmond (Lydia), John McGinty (Orin Dennis), Anthony Edwards (Mr. Franklin)
Set Design: Derek McLane
Costume Design: Dede Ayite
Lighting Design by Mike Baldassari
Stage Manager: Cambra Overend
Running Time: 2 hours 30 minutes including intermission
Studio 54, 254 W 54th Street
From 3/22/18; opening 4/11/18; closing 5/17/18
Review by Simon Saltzman based on press preview performance 04/07/18

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