For a story about a deaf woman fighting to be heard, we spend a lot of time in Children of a Lesser God experiencing her through an unfortunate filter—a man who translates everything she says and ultimately is driving the narrative. Despite a diverse cast of talented hearing and deaf actors, the creaky age of the play and its patronizing tone is its greatest obstacle. Director Kenny Leon’s disjointed production does not ameliorate this.
James Leeds (Joshua Jackson) is a speech therapist at a school for the deaf led by Mr. Franklin (Anthony Edwards). Franklin asks Leeds to help with an obstinate 26-year-old deaf student Sarah Norman (Lauren Ridloff). Sarah has been at the school since she was five and is estranged from her family. She works as a janitor at the school and signs, but refuses to learn to read lips or speak. Franklin and others think deaf students should learn both so they can interact more in the hearing world.
Leeds’ speech lessons however quickly morph into romantic overtures. All the while swept up in this relationship, Sarah gets distracted from the deaf activism of her close friend Orin (John McGinty) who is trying to challenge the way the school rejects Deaf culture, dictates to its deaf students, and lacks deaf instructors.
This 1979 play by Mark Medoff “takes place in the mind of James Leeds” which explains, on some level, why his voice is centered. But the production never finds a suitable visual manifestation of this memory play location. It presents a gray, icy, abstract forest of trees and door frames. With white, sleek, modern surfaces and bold colorful lighting, it looks most like a late night fast food sushi emporium. Everyone is dressed in vibrant 70’s fashion and many props (but not all) are mimed.
I can’t think of the last time I saw a play where there was sooooo much mime. During a card game I wanted to scream, “Just give them cards!” Does James’ memory budget end at playing cards? Worse, the actors were not all miming the location or the height of the same card table either.
At some point, Leon makes Jackson climb a tree to sneak into Sarah’s room. But with the low scale set Jackson basically has to fake “dangerously” hanging off a tree about one foot off the ground. The “illusion” is a bit too much to bear. Sure, this is meant to be a memory play but the lighting, sound, design, and direction have not necessarily made that consistently evident. In fact, Leon’s direction leads the play to come off as messy and confusing.
Caught between Deaf culture and hearing culture, Sarah’s struggles remain a compelling raison d’etre for any play. But not letting us have our own way into Sarah feels woefully out-of-date. Surtitles are projected and when Sarah speaks in sign all it says is “Sarah signs” and then we must wait for James to repeat what she says. The production is following the text.
Maybe 40 years ago listening to this hearing man tell the story of his relationship with his deaf partner would elicit empathy but now it feels like the entire endeavor is focused on the wrong person and for the wrong reasons.
We are left to the whims and irritating control of the hokey voice of James. He is always trying too hard to be liked and he employs a grating sarcasm as his defense mechanism. James is somehow well-meaning, but woefully out of touch. He awkwardly does not see how another student has a crush on him even though Sarah keeps pointing it out to him over and over again. He’s supposed to be a political radical of sorts, but seemingly totally disconnected from contemporary deaf politics (which might be historically accurate but his passivity in these issues in the context of the play is dramaturgically strange). It’s a lot to ask the audience to warm up to this unlikable buffoon. Joshua Jackson does what he can to soften this James and he truly finds moments of charm (despite the awful dialogue). His tender relationship with Ridloff is the play’s saving grace but he cannot overcome the fundamental weakness of James being the central voice of the play.
Lauren Ridloff, in her first professional stage role, is a charismatic and dynamic Sarah. There were moments I wished I knew ASL so that I did not need the translation. She moves with utter confidence and conviction. She fulfills the play’s intention that Sarah is remarkable and fascinating and we should be drawn in by her.
But Sarah’s marginalization in a play about Deaf culture leaves me wondering why this play got revived. Even with this exciting performance from Ridloff, no one in this production has made the case for this play in this moment.