Theater Review: Listening to Children of a Lesser God, 30 Years Later

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Lauren Ridloff and Joshua Jackson in Children of a Lesser God, at Studio 54. Photo: Matthew Murphy

There are two intense scenes in Children of a Lesser God’s first Broadway revival, opening tonight at Studio 54 almost 30 years after its Tony-sweeping debut, that are already reason enough to see it. In the first showstopper, late in Act One, Sarah Norman — deaf from birth and mute by choice — uses sign language to explain what her silence “sounds” like to her teacher and future lover. Sarah’s long fingers flutter and bloom like gestural fireworks, pure manual lyricism. And then, toward the end of the play, there is Sarah’s single eruption of speech, a long and angry roar from the depths of that silence as primal and disturbing as anything in Lear.

These twin climaxes have a couple of things in common. Both are performed with instinctive brilliance by acting rookie Lauren Ridloff, a former Miss Deaf America who was teaching ASL to the play’s director, Kenny Leon, when he had a stroke of casting genius. And both scenes happen to be incomprehensible to the hearing audience, or at least those without a copy of the script. Broadway’s most accessible show ever for the hearing-impaired is at times inaccessible or awkward for the hearing — which is maybe the most thematically resonant technical flaw ever to afflict a play.

James Leeds, an able-hearing teacher played with grace under tremendous pressure by Joshua Jackson (who has to sign his spoken lines and then voice Sarah’s replies), falls in love with the 26-year-old Sarah, an alumna and current housekeeper at their residential school for the deaf. James is convinced that learning to speak and lip-read will open up the world to his highly intelligent student, but Sarah considers it a form of selling out. James insists she’s just scared, sheltering herself in the persona of the “deaf angry person.” Sarah was thought to be retarded until age 12; her deafness broke up her parents’ marriage and her mother (Kecia Lewis) sent her away at age 5. Lewis plays Mrs. Norman with coiled volatility, hinting at the way shame might have twisted into deep resentment in mother and daughter both.

Against all odds and the sage advice of headmaster Mr. Franklin (played with weary wit by Anthony Edwards), the lovers marry and a few too many complications ensue. Mark Medoff’s 1979 play might have won three Tonys (for Best Play and both leads), along with an Oscar for Marlee Matlin in its gauzy 1986 film adaptation, but it’s no masterwork of plot. It’s a loose memory play recounted by an older James — giving him complete narrative control over a story in which he’s already translating all of Sarah’s signs for us. (“No one is ever going to speak for Sarah again,” he says, speaking for Sarah yet again.)

Leon’s direction leans into the play’s age as well as its loose plotting. Dede Ayite’s costume designs — bell bottoms embroidered with flowers, blazers and clogs and ruffled bright blouses — are impeccable, if maybe a little too sinuous and vibrant on Sarah, a virtual shut-in. The songs, from Prince and Wings and Earth Wind & Fire, are all meticulously carbon-dated, but none feels gimmicky or rote. (This is reportedly an improvement from last summer’s Berkshire Theatre Group tryout, though the replacement of Stephen Spinella as the headmaster is surely a loss.) Music plays a surprisingly powerful role in this narrative about silence — as when James egregiously soundsplains a Bach concerto, creating another fissure in the couple’s unstable marriage.

Derek McLane’s minimalist set admits only a few chairs, several oversize door frames lit in ever-changing hues, and a handful of real props. Supporting players flit on and off almost willy-nilly — chiefly the young, flirty student Lydia (Treshelle Edmond, who can’t transcend her character’s frivolousness), and more importantly Orin, Sarah’s childhood friend (a passionate John McGinty), who enlists her grudging support in a lawsuit demanding more deaf teachers at the school.

Lydia and Orin, nearly deaf students whom James has taught to speak imperfectly, also function to fill in the spectrum of speech and hearing, throwing James and Sarah into relief. (The fact that Ridloff is African-American underscores their power dynamic.) McLane’s sparseness heightens the sense of their romance as both extraordinary and fleeting, though sometimes at the cost of naturalism. The couple’s first dinner date feels about as authentic as an Italian-restaurant sketch on Saturday Night Live.

And yet their chemistry is undeniable. Ridloff is not only a great silent actress but also a fantastic flirt. Jackson has to work a little harder (mostly with success) to expose the tender heart of a character with more contradictions. On top of all the talking and signing, James needs to be both loving and controlling, a Peace Corps do-gooder who emotionally abandoned his troubled mother. It’s his bafflingly insensitive reaction to one of Sarah’s final monologues — a prepared speech in which she meditates eloquently on the sign for “union” — that leads to their climactic fight.

Some of James’s willful obtuseness might be an artifact of a time when it was more normal for a teacher to stalk a student unto marriage, remove her from home and job, and promise to fulfill her every desire except the one she holds most dear — in this case the right to remain silent. Sarah’s push for independence must have felt more stubborn and shocking back when deaf people were expected to accommodate the hearing and women to accommodate men. (Men who uttered icky Me Decade psychobabble like “I need to be ingested by you.”)

More significant than the dated language or sexual politics is the play’s core problem, which is also the problem of its characters. Sarah complains that hearing people who fail to respect her speechlessness “will never truly be able to come inside my silence and know me.” Well, neither can we — barring some major rewrite that might allow us, for example, to read her words in supertitles instead of pausing the action as James recites them. In fact, Studio 54 already displays supertitles, but they’re for the hearing-impaired — printing what’s spoken but not what’s signed. And about that first great scene: The script translates Sarah’s beautiful description of her own silence as “the sound of spring breaking up through the death of winter.” It’s just as beautiful in Ridloff’s signing hands, but it would be nice to know the literal meaning, too.

And yet there is power in the untranslated, which of course is the point. Logistical concerns vanish in the play’s best moments. Gone is the sense that this is an obligatory Worthy play, or a Terms of Endearment–style weepie in the mode of the movie. You may, in fact, weep, but only in mourning for everything that separates Sarah and James — or anyone from anyone else. Medoff’s real subject isn’t deafness or even love, but the problem of other minds, and the impossibility of forging that perfect union we all long for, whereby a couple can become one, and yet remain two at the same time.

Children of a Lesser God is at Studio 54.

Theater Review: Listening to Children of a Lesser God