Theater Review: ‘Children of a Lesser God’

From the perspective of the deaf
April 22, 2018 Updated: April 22, 2018    

NEW YORK—Taking place in a school for the deaf, Mark Medoff’s play presents a love story between Sarah (Lauren Ridloff), a young woman deaf from birth, and her speaking teacher James (Joshua Jackson).

But more than that, the play takes on the conflict between the deaf who would prefer not being forced to accommodate to a hearing world, and the other faction, those who read lips and do their best to learn to speak.

Sarah’s choice is the former. She uses signing to communicate: “My eyes are my ears and my hands are my voice.” And in Ridloff’s remarkable performance, she gets her points across. She is very lovely, lithe, fluid in movement, and vivid in her rapid, delicate hand movements. James translates her movements into spoken language for the audience.

Although Sarah is standoffish at first, both rejecting and almost simultaneously flirtatious toward James, it’s easy to see why he is drawn into her almost magnetic orbit.

And although James is warned by head teacher Mr. Franklin (Anthony Edwards) that such a mixed relationship won’t be easy, after a passionate courtship, Sarah and James marry. Franklin proves to be right.

The conflict becomes tangible in the person of Orin Dennis (John McGinty), a long-time friend of Sarah’s. He has chosen the road of trying to integrate with the hearing sector and both signs and speaks. But at the same time, he retains his strong desire to have deaf people recognized and appreciated for their contributions. Disapproving of James, Orin wants Sarah to join him in his fight to have more deaf teachers brought into the school.

Sarah’s mother Mrs. Norman (Kecia Lewis) is brought into the mix. There’s a longstanding rift between her and her daughter, perhaps because Mrs. Norman feels that bearing a deaf daughter broke up her marriage. Her husband left soon after Sarah’s birth.

Lydia (Treshelle Edmond), a student at the school, has eyes for James and tries to win him away from Sarah. But she is unsuccessful and is notable only for her efforts to join the speaking world.

Speaking lawyer Edna Klein (Julee Cerda), who aids Orin in his legal battle, displays some difficulties in communicating with the deaf and partly deaf individuals.

The play, which won a Tony in 1980 when it was first presented, seems somewhat dated, as some advances have presumably been made in integrating the deaf, or some of them, into speaking society. But there’s no question that the leading role of Sarah has proved a boon to certain actresses: Phyllis Frelich won the Best Actress Tony Award in 1980 and Marlee Matlin won an Oscar for the 1986 film.

Undoubtedly Lauren Ridloff, a former Miss Deaf America, will be in the running for future                                 awards. She originally came to director Kenny Leon’s attention when he was seeking someone to familiarize him with the intricacies of American sign language (ASL). Her early assignment led to the plum role of Sarah.

Set pieces by Derek McLane, consisting of a group of doors in different colors are puzzling, frankly, although they are well lit by lighting designer Mike Baldassari. Dede Ayite ‘s costumes nicely capture the era of the 1970s.

Although not a perfect production, it has an aura of sweetness and a gentle tension that smacks of a slightly different time. And performances, under Leon’s direction, are uniformly excellent. Well worth seeing.

‘Children of a Lesser God’
Studio 54
254 W. 54th St.
Running Time: 2 hours
Tickets: 212-239-6200 or Telecharge.com
Open run

Diana Barth writes for various theater publications, including New Millennium. She may be contact at DiaBarth99@gmail.com