As great theatre can transcend the language barrier, so too can bad acting be universal. This is sadly proven by the Keen Company's new revival of Children of a Lesser God at the Connelly Theatre: No one who communicates in any language emerges completely unscathed from this six-and-a-half-car-pileup production of Mark Medoff's 1980 play.
At least only two languages embarrass their users; one is English and the other is American Sign Language (ASL). As neither language has completely redeemed itself in the two years since the scintillating debacle that was Medoff's 2004 Broadway play Prymate, this revival was a risky venture to begin with. And a director not up to this play's deceptively rigorous requirements starts at a distinct disadvantage.
Blake Lawrence has no luck reconciling with her staging the play's "memory play" aspects, which should root this tender (if rough-edged) story of love and understanding between a hearing man and a deaf woman in both the hyper-real and hyper-theatrical. Scenes bleed into one another, characters exist in multiple locales simultaneously and speak where they can't possibly be heard - this is free-form, fluid theatre in need of a director who can anchor each word and locale for the audience.
At any given point, we must know what's happening and where so that we can puzzle over the why; here, we never get that far. Nathan Heverin's multilevel-platform set and Josh Bradford's dreamlike lighting properly allow for a playing space of infinite possibilities, but it's too much for Lawrence and her cast members to grasp. Their world is nebulous and nonspecific to a fault; the actors just look lost, unsure of whether what they're saying or doing matters because no one has decided whether it ever happened at all.
Clarity of concept is crucial, because the entire play takes place in the mind of James Leeds (Jeffry Denman), a speech therapist whose troubled patient Sarah Norman (Alexandra Wailes) becomes his nemesis, his lover, and then his wife. Their courtship, relationship, and marriage pass by in a flash, with days or weeks elapsing between interconnected scenes, and with often mysterious characters peppering the narrative for reasons not immediately discernible.
Every external question must be stripped away; every ounce of fat must be trimmed. Only then can the disconnects between the play's various elements make any real sense. As James attempts to reassemble the pieces of his life, his focus shifts unpredictably between the events and people that have brought him to his current deflated state. These include Sarah's hard-of-hearing friends Orin (Guthrie Nutter) and Lydia (Tami Lee Santimyer), who waver in importance as the evening presses on; and the story's "adults," Sarah's mother (Lee Roy Rogers), the supervising teacher at Sarah's deaf school (Ian Blackman), and the lawyer determined to fight for equal rights (Makela Spielman), intentionally insubstantial figures who occupy temporary realities only as required.
What should be an intricate web of characterization registers here as ineptitude, with one-note performances being the norm from everyone involved. We get no real sense of Lydia's jealousy-driven sexual yearnings, or of Orin's revolutionary tendencies until they're required by the plot. Blackman, Rogers, and Spielman respectively give generic portrayals of heartlessness, soullessness, and cluelessness, belying the belief each should have that he or she is doing the right thing.
Worse is Denman, who is unconvincing in every aspect of his character and moves with such stiffly wooden resolve that he looks as though he just uprooted himself from Central Park. Vocally, he drones, speaking with no color; true, much of James's character rests in his translations of Sarah's ASL "speech", but in doing this Denman only narrates, never acts. He looks and sounds so uncomfortable throughout, it takes some effort to remember he's a spectacular dancer and a fine singer who's enlivened shows on Broadway (The Producers) and beyond (Yank!, at last year's NYMF). Perhaps he should stick to that?
The mixed bag is Wailes, who spends half her time flatlining with everyone else, and half painting a compelling portrait of a woman pained both by the non-hearing world she's in and the hearing world others want her to join. She overacts ferociously early on, as if playing to the Connelly's non-existent third balcony, but eventually unleashes a quietly passionate fury that makes Sarah the only believable one onstage for vast stretches of the second act.
It's when she's at her best that she unlocks the true meaning of Medoff's play, communicating the "silence full of sound" that so defines Sarah's world. When Sarah is forced to leave it, if only momentarily, her betrayal by hearing world feels like an exorcism of the soul that most of us can't truly comprehend. Her pain, her anguish, and her despair in these moments ring out loud and clear; nothing else in this Children of a Lesser God does.
Children of a Lesser God