Theatre Review by Howard Miller - April 11, 2018
Children of a Lesser God By Mark Medoff. Directed by Kenny Leon. Scenic design by Derek McLane. Costume design by Dede Ayite. Lighting design by Mike Baldassari. Sound design by Jill BC Du Boff. Director of artistic sign language Alexandria Wailes. Original music composed by Branford Marsalis. Cast: Joshua Jackson, Lauren Ridloff, Julee Cerda, Treshelle Edmond, Kecia Lewis, John McGinty, and Anthony Edwards.
Yes, it is still a play about the communication abyss separating the hearing world from the deaf world. But this production does not shy away from more contemporary questions about power, privilege, sexual politics, and race as it presents its tale of a tightly wound, proud deaf woman and the well intentioned man who wants pull her into the hearing world by teaching her lip reading and speech. That they fall in love with one another only manages to churn things up a thousandfold by bringing out the best and the worst in both of them.
Lauren Ridloff gives a luminous and emotionally explosive performance as Sarah, a 26-year-old deaf women who works as a maid at the school for the deaf, run by its condescending director Mr. Franklin (Anthony Edwards). For Sarah, the school is the one place where she feels in control of her life, where she doesn't have to live among hearing people who make her feel like damaged goods. "I don't do things that I can't do well," is how she signs it, but everything else about her says that she is damned if she will participate in efforts to change her as a convenience to others. The only reason she is willing to let the new teacher work with her at all is because she must take some classes as a requirement for being allowed to continue living there.
Sarah has been deaf from birth. This marks her as different from even the other students we meet at the school, Orin (John McGinty) and Lydia (Treshelle Edmond), both of whom have some residual hearing and are able to read lips and speak as well as sign. (Per the playwright's instructions, Sarah, Orin, and Lydia are played by deaf actors, and all three are excellent.) Lydia is generally content with her life and is quite forthright in her dealings with others. In fact, she makes it clear to James that if things do not work out with Sarah, she'd be quite happy to take up with him. For his part, Orin is becoming a militant defender of deaf rights and has filed a complaint against the school for its refusal to hire teachers who are deaf themselves. "You think learning to sign means you can communicate with us," he tells James dismissively.
Sarah and James are attracted to each other from the start, but it is clear they both are carrying the pride and prejudices of their experiences that will make their connection extremely difficult to maintain. They strive mightily to make it as a couple, and for a time it does seem they may be able to overcome the odds as James keeps repeating his mantra: "We're a team. We're unbeatable!" But the divide between them is too great and happiness is elusive. Sarah, who has grown used to the quietly balanced life she had created for herself, can no longer bear the pressure of fitting in. The end comes with a devastating outburst, first in signing than in a flood of speech sounds that are indecipherable to the audience beyond the anguish they convey. Sarah then retreats to the refuge of her mother's home. It is a sad closure, but this time love is not enough to get them past the insurmountable set of obstacles.
Throughout, there are so many well-considered touches that assist in making this production such a strong one, including the use of overhead captioning, a signer, and listening devices for those in the audience who need them, as well as the inclusion of a director of artistic sign language as part of the creative team. Derek McLane's set, Mike Baldassari's lighting, Jill BC Du Boff's sound design, and original music by Branford Marsalis all contribute to the overall dreamlike quality of the play, which, we know from the start, is unfolding in James's memory. In its relentless march towards the pre-ordained split between Sarah and James, it is important to bear in mind that everything we have been watching is based on James's perception of how he met and fell in love with Sarah, how their relationship blossomed into marriage, and then, later, how it collapsed under its own weight. Once again, we only hear Sarah's voice through someone else's interpretation. She would not be pleased.