Children of A Lesser God by Mark Medoff opens on Broadway in a revival directed by Kenny Leon and starring Joshua Jackson and Lauren Ridloff. It is the story of a speech therapist at a school for the deaf who falls in love with a young woman, a former student at the school who has now retreated into its corridors staying on as house cleaner. She, Sarah Norman (played by the exquisite Lauren Ridloff) has chosen a job far away from the hearing and speaking world. She is pure deaf. Meaning she will never hear, not even with the help of a hearing aid. The school exists to assist those who are unable to hear, learn to speak. Thus enabling them to integrate into the hearing and speaking world. Sarah’s rebellion against that integration has created a shell around her too tough to crack. Through the journey of the play we find that the shell is only a veneer to cover the complicated and confused young woman inside. She meets James Leeds (Joshua Jackson in an extraordinary feat of acting), the new speech therapist, who’s unconventional means of teaching, are to the students a delight and the faculty (Anthony Edwards) an unpleasant distraction. Sarah and James fall in love and that love is the doing and undoing of them. Sarah’s voice heard in the speaking world is James’ voice. He is her translator, interpreting to others what her signs and body language are saying. However even as he interprets, James continues to demand that she speak, Speak, SPEAK! But her hands and body language already say so much.
American Sign Language (ASL) is a beautiful and intricate language; using not just the hands of the speaker, but the body and the face. So when we watch Sarah sign and then James translate we know that parts are missing. His words are not as true to what she is trying to convey as her signing is. And Sarah knows as well. James' motivation is that he wants her to be a part of her world and also be a part of his. In the culminating moment, when Sarah finally lets her voice be heard, the moment is so powerful that the audience held their collective breath.
Joshua Jackson has a difficult role as both actor and translator, and he is simply put, wonderful. He makes it all look so easy. All of it; the acting, the signing (he had to learn for the part). Lauren Ridloff is a powerhouse of raw emotion and honesty. She is so incredibly strong and beautiful. If she were in a standoff with a lion, my bet would be on Ridloff. Not because she would over-power the creature, but because she would show no fear and use her charm and cunning to best him. The supporting cast Anthony Edwards, John McGinty, Kecia Lewis, Treshelle Edmond and Julee Cerda are on mark and lovely.
This is a play about falling in love despite the hurdles and barriers of language and voice and the need to be heard. The signing is so amazing that when the characters do simple mimes of opening windows and doors, those movements come across as awkward and jarring compared to the complex moves of ASL. Those mimes felt out of place.
As did the set; a cold maze of white door frames and white tree trunks jutting up into the rafters all bathed in blue lighting. A busy set that took me away from the words being said and signed.
Five of the actors are making their broadway debut. Welcome Lauren, Anthony, Joshua, Julee and John. Welcome and stay a while. We have conversations to continue.
(Photo by Matthew Murphy)
What the popular press says...
"The pungency of sign language is not the subject of Mark Medoff’s Children of a Lesser God, which opened on Wednesday at Studio 54 in a mixed bag of a Broadway revival directed by Kenny Leon. But it’s a wonderful bonus to the play’s fierce rivalry between those who promote spoken English as the highest attainable form of communication and those who are staunch partisans of silence."
Jesse Green for New York Times
"In the role for which Phyllis Frelich won a Tony and Marlee Matlin an Oscar, Ridloff, a wonderfully expressive actress, provides the show with its vibrant beating heart. She connects with and conveys Sarah’s anger, desire, vulnerability and independent spirit — and leaves a lasting impression."
Joe Dziemianowicz for New York Daily News
"Children of a Lesser God is ultimately about how hard it is to understand Sarah’s inner life, but Ridloff is the only thing in the play that seems to have any inner life at all. She is a wonder; the rest is mostly unspeakable."
Adam Feldman for Time Out New York
"If there's a more indigestible lump of bouncy 1970s pop schmaltz than Paul McCartney's "Silly Love Songs," right now it escapes me. It's one of a handful of intrusive music choices that director Kenny Leon makes in the dreary Broadway revival of Children of a Lesser God, a once-groundbreaking 1979 play by Mark Medoff that today needs no help showing its age."
David Rooney for Hollywood Reporter
"Memory can be deceptive, but it does seem as if this existential conflict between the speaking world and the silent world was portrayed more forcefully in the original production. In this revival, directed by Kenny Leon, the argument doesn’t really surface until the end of the play. Lacking that solid thematic foundation, Medoff’s play deflates into just another romantic drama about mismatched lovers struggling to surmount their differences and live happily ever after."
Marilyn Stasio for Variety
External links to full reviews from popular press...