Lauren Ridloff and Joshua Jackson in 'Children of a Lesser God.' (Photo: Matthew Murphy)

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. 

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  1. “Not So Shitty Airplane Coffee” A Deaf attendee’s review of COALG

    Whenever there’s a conference I’m attending, I’d take every opportunity to check out any local Deaf (or any minority group which I also identified with) event in wherever I’m visiting. Thanks to AERA conference in NYC, a couple of my colleagues and I took the advantage to watch “Children of a Lesser God” on Broadway at Studio 54 last Saturday. We were utterly ecstatic to witness this play to go on Broadway for the first time with a Deaf Woman-of-Color (after the first Broadway show in 1980) as the star. Lauren Ridloff plays the main character, Sarah Norman, who’s a Deaf non-speaking janitor. Most importantly, this was Ridloff’s debut to go on a Broadway stage while playing opposite to Joshua Jackson as James Leed, a new speech therapist. After corresponding with several other Deaf attendees, I feel compelled to write this since there are still not enough Deaf reviewers and being outside of the entertainment business, my career isn’t at risk. We have already read some articles–including this one–all written by hearing non-signers who raved about Ridloff’s aesthetically arm-flowing (or flapping) movements but gave begrudgingly criticism on Jackson or as once referred on the stage as Mr. “Lazy” (similar to his namesign). So I’d like to offer my Deaf and ASL-fluent signer’s perspective, and not only that but also a review coming from a light-skinned female African-American.

    Currently on my way back home to Long Beach, this non-distracting flight is allowing me to digest with everything from that play, with free bottomless airplane coffee. Presented with a dilemma on framing this review either as supportive for this successful show, starring with two Black (one biracial) Deaf female actresses, or as brutally honest in order to encourage us all to learn from this lesson, I decide to take the tougher path with the latter. Take notes y’all, this gonna be my last time to watch this outdated storyline. The director, Kenny Leon, a Black hearing male non-fluent signer, did a terrific job maintaining this performance faithfully to the original script, written by Mark Medoff, a hearing White playwright in 1979. I could sense the (awkward) racial tension that was tempted and teased to release and shift this storyline elsewhere but unfortunately for me, it didn’t. However, I still need to express my “teeth-grinding” disappointment watching the amateurish quality of acting. Oftentimes, I resisted from doing #facepalm since I needed my (reddened) eyes to watch every signed line, despite some signs were squashed and overlapped among their scripted lines.

    First of all, my group purchased our tickets several months ago before the theater decided to offer ASL-interpreted nights. We arrived and found out that it was same schedule as one of their ASL nights (with Deaf attendees sitting marginalized on the left side of the audience) while we sat right in the middle of the orchestra. We had the best view seeing both of Ridloff’s and Jackson’s signed lines and the captions, placed on the top, above the stage. We still had to look far up and sympathize with those who sat in the front rows (or the Deaf section) to bend their heads far back to read the captions! Nonetheless this bimodal (both signed and textual communication) accessibility was truly luxury for us all, different signers (various ASL competencies) wanting to know what exactly has been spoken too. Hope this trend will pick up with future plays! While we could see the signings well, the attendees in the Deaf section, on the other hand, had reported that some signed lines weren’t visible to them. How’s that for irony when this show is intended to empower the Deaf people? When we couldn’t understand Jackson’s clumsy signs, we’d peek over to the interps on the far left of our vision—or look upward. So it was a large triangular point of views that involved lots of neck rotations, thanks to this overloaded accessibility!

    Secondly, to my understanding, Jackson is limited on articulating lines between himself and Sarah, which my hearing friend explained sounding as an “announcer’s voice”. Pitifully, Sarah couldn’t be expressed in voice with various intonations while her signs engaged with so much emotions and yet expressed in 150-mph speed of signing. Again, from a Deaf signer’s perspective, I must add to that bemoaning response to how unarticulated other actors were. From an insider’s information, Ridloff’s signed lines were rehearsed with a stopwatch. Eh??? Do you do that with speech? Being married with a fashionista of ‘70’s wardrobe myself, I pay an extra attention to this theme of outfits. Someone needs to explain to the wardrobe designer to dress the signers in high contrasting colors (light to dark solid colors) to make the signs more visible and articulated. Oftentimes, Ridloff’s signs are lost in so much visually noise in her clothing. This wouldn’t work with speech overlapping any unnecessary background noise. Finally about registry of sign language, I’m fairly impressed with Jackson’s mostly intelligible signing skills. Although his registry is much closer to ASL, less signing exact English (SEE) which dissociated from his supposedly character as a speech therapist. If you ask any Deaf person for any (traumatic) memory of going speech therapy, barely would anyone claim having a fully ASL-fluent speech therapist! And is this how ASL was signed in late-70’s/early-80’s? It felt too modernized without any historical word/sign used. Yet all of these decisions were made by the language consultant of this play. *shrugs*

    Thirdly, back to the “awkward” racial tension, how can I, as a Black woman, am supposed to take this well while a White male signer is voicing and interpreting half-assedly for Sarah?! Adding on top of that, to see the second Black Deaf female actress, Treshelle Edmond, throwing herself (Lynda) to a White hearing savior?? Lastly, James’s patronizing jokes were winning the audience entirely in the wrong way. So many hearing playgoers, unaware with Deaf culture, are walking away with the wrong impressions that Deaf and/or Black woman can’t function without help of a hearing and/or White spouse. Yes it is truly a sensitive issue for any Deaf-hearing or interracial relationship and this is actually personal for me. Normally people would make a decision at the beginning of each relationship involving with disparity of power between any different hierarchical statues that so many of us could find this theme relatable. But Jackson’s role isn’t helping with this sensitivity.

    Finally, fourth of all, the acting quality truly got me stumped. It’s split equally in bipolar points of masterfully and shitty done. I’m sorry sistas but you both severely need to take up more acting training. Really, this is on the director for not giving you the needed extra attention due to your characters being displayed so shallow. Sarah should have been reflected as a strong and fierce woman but was emitted with Ridloff’s vulnerability with slouched shoulders and multiple awkward and unconvincing facial expressions of dismissive, dubious, and unconcerned looks shown simultaneously. Treshelle, your character isn’t supposed to look like a 12-years old girl! Your posture needs to be portrayed more grown up like a young teen/adult and a seductive one (like shown on “Master of None”—S2/E6). Finally, the chemistry between Jackson and Ridloff is profoundly lost that so many of us were totally not convinced by the romance between them. Jackson had us easily hooked with his sorrow about losing his mother through his free-flowingly tears while Ridloff faked hers with her back shown to us. We Deaf attendees had to rely on the captions of sounds “cries,” implying that she did cry. The emotions throughout of this storyline were both rushed and unconvincing until Orin came on and saved the play. This character was performed by Johnny McGinty, and impressed us with his intense dilemma of becoming political and accidentally hypocritical while trying to pull his close friend Sarah into his fight for Deaf rights. Thanks to his nearly authentic emotions, he kept me from falling asleep and eventually saw Ridloff’s improved acting quality in the second half after the intermission. Btw, can y’all let me know why her (low-voiced) screaming wasn’t captioned? Notably, another small part of Sarah’s mother, performed by Kecia Lewis was absolutely soothing to my eyes seeing her as Mother Hen and feeling her deep pain over the strained relationship between herself and her daughter.

    Now, on my third cup of not-so-shitty airplane coffee, I’m thinking “Nope, not today.” I just could not do this delicately since this wondrous opportunity was totally missed from other incredible and more experienced Deaf actresses. Kenny Leon, put aside your nepotism (no open audition available) and your fetish of Black signing women. Try to swap the race around in each character and then maybe, maybe this play can be half convincing and not so racially and sexually awkward, especially with today’s climate of #BLM and #MeToo. Since this is a repeated pattern of a hearing non-ASL-fluent director, perhaps for future Deaf-related plays, this is a calling for co-directorship with a culturally-Deaf person. Since this slogan of this show is #StartListening, then I suggest you to ask around with Deaf theater-goers for their feedback. Do not limit to Nyle DiMarco, supposedly the “producer” of this play, who overlooked several problematic issues of this production, given his White male perspective. Reach out to other Deaf People-of-Color, especially women, for their observations.

    Good luck with the rest of the scheduled run of this play. Let me know when someone or anybody from Deaf West Theatre writes a revival version of this shortly outlived storyline.
    SIGNed,
    Rezenet Moges-Riedel