The challenges that all of us must confront in order to achieve meaningful human connection is the central theme of Mark Medoff’s play “Children of a Lesser God.” How can we overcome the obstacles that divide us in order to understand one another? “Start listening. Stop judging,” read the T-shirts for sale in the lobby of Studio 54, in case we miss the point. Unfortunately the current Broadway revival, which is the first major New York production since this play won the Tony in 1980, fails to either illuminate that quest for connection or compellingly engage us in its telling.
After its original two-year Broadway run, “Children of a Lesser God” was made into a commercially successful feature film that has remained in popular memory. (Audience members at Studio 54 last week could be overheard comparing their favorite moments from the movie.) Set just after the end of the Vietnam War at a residential school for deaf children, the action gets underway when a speech therapist, James Leeds, (Joshua Jackson) arrives fresh from the Peace Corps to join the school staff. He is asked by his principal to teach a profoundly deaf 26-year-old woman, Sarah Norman (Lauren Ridloff), who works as a maid at the school.
The obstacles that separate James and his reluctant pupil are the idealistic wrong headedness of the one and the isolating deafness of the other. Initially forced together, they spar, one-up and constantly test each other’s mettle as attraction between them inevitably grows. Their evolving professional and emotional dynamics take us right to the central conceit of the play, namely that Sarah’s dialogue is entirely in American Sign Language (ASL). Her ongoing resistance to learning to lip read, never mind speak, is a key point of conflict. Therefore it falls to James to interpret for us.
While acknowledging that this presents an acting challenge worthy of the Olympics, Jackson, best known for his leading role in television’s “The Affair,” after six seasons in “Dawson’s Creek,” is simply not up to the demands of the part. The actor playing James must convey both the journey of his own character and that of Sarah’s, deftly and at lightning speed, in order for the translation not to become ponderous. The playwright wrote potentially funny lines to help James along. He is meant to use humor as self-protection from his traumatic upbringing — not that Jackson’s characterization gives us much hint of this burden. Sarah wryly comments that James is “not funny in deaf, only in hearing.” In this performance, his jokes don’t land in either.
While the text suggests a mercurial, enthusiastic, if somewhat lost altruist, Jackson comes across as glib and phlegmatic. Overall, in serving as both Sarah’s voice and his own, we should be offered discoveries about the evolving emotional reality of each. Instead, the performance merely becomes monotonous and wearing.
This is a huge drawback in a play that only works if we become totally invested in the two principal characters. Director Kenny Leon, who has done sterling and subtle work with August Wilson, here pushes things along instead of allowing the actors to linger over moments of significance in their relationship, so we might have time to care. When James and Sarah become lovers we need to be in Romeo and Juliet territory, especially in view of what we learn of Sarah’s promiscuous past. Instead the coupling seems perfunctory where it should be poignant. This comes about because palpable erotic and emotional chemistry between the two leads is lacking.
Ridloff is a delicate, almost gamine Sarah whose charisma and emotional clarity somewhat compensates for a lack of ferocity. She seems to open herself to James almost too quickly given what we learn of her past. Startling moments of insight do come when Sarah pulls James to his feet and invites him to dance (she can feel the vibrations of the music), or when simply navigating a menu becomes a comic predicament. But ultimately it is only when Sarah shares a speech of her own composing that demands society acknowledge and validate her on her own terms, that the play suddenly become timely once again. The crucial issue of representation, of the moral obligation to allow people to speak for and about themselves, is focused intensely through Sarah’s remarkable intellect and the actor’s translucent presence.
Few of the other characters are fully developed, and frictions that emerge between them often feel forced and contrived, especially in the second act. The estrangement between Sarah and her mother (a commanding Kecia Lewis) isn’t easy to decode, and little tension is created either before or during their eventual reunion. They might have not spoken for merely eight days as opposed to eight years. This makes the softening between mother and daughter later in the play feel too convenient.
Playing the principal of the school, Mr. Franklin (Anthony Edwards) is almost a walking stereotype with his bow tie and power-loving condescension. “We don’t fornicate with the students, we just screw them over.” It falls to the activist Orin Dennis (John McGinty in a resolute and exacting performance) to advance the play’s ideological agenda of separation between the deaf and hearing worlds, in order that deafness not be viewed as an affliction.
Leon’s directorial vision includes original music by Branford Marsalis, and retro Stevie Wonder that provided enjoyable riffs, but the applicability to the play was not obvious, at least to me. Similarly, Derek McLane’s minimalist abstract, almost futuristic set design proved flexible for multiple locations, but did not help access the world of the play.
What may have seemed groundbreaking in 1980 can appear trite and obvious now, and there are lines that sit uneasily between the sanctimonious and the sentimental. However, this is not to suggest that the issues that are raised in the play have been resolved in society, only that they are now perhaps expressed with more sophistication. Yet the production is to be commended for the diverse casting of authentic members of the deaf community in pivotal roles.
Ultimately though, the production must deliver on the play’s premise that through striving and allowing long-held beliefs to be challenged we can become more unified and compassionate. It is a regrettable irony that “Children of a Lesser God” fails to convince us of that outcome.
“Children of a Lesser God” opened at Studio 54 on Wed., April, 11, 2018.
Creative: Written by Mark Medoff; Original Music Composed by Branford Marsalis; Directed by Kenny Leon; Scenic Design by Derek McLane; Costume Design by Dede Ayite; Lighting Design by Mike Baldassari; Sound Design by Jill B.C. Du Boff.
Producers: Hal Luftig, LHC Theatrical Development, Craig Haffner & Sherry Wright, Yasuhiro Kawana, James L. Nederlander, Rodney Rigby, Albert Nocciolino/Independent Presenters Network, Blue Fog Productions, Suzanne L. Niedland, The Shubert Organization, Jhett Tolentino, Steve & Paula Reynolds, Nyle DiMarco and Roundabout Theatre Company.
Cast: Joshua Jackson, Lauren Ridloff, Anthony Edwards, Julee Cerda, Treshelle Edmond, Kecia Lewis, John McGinty.