Lauren Ridloff and Joshua
Jackson photos by Matthew Murphy
of speech and sound, the mysteries of silence and the entanglements of love are
interwoven into a deeply moving tapestry in Mark Medoff’s Children of a
Lesser God. Now the drama, whose original Broadway production garnered it a
Best Play Tony Award in 1980, becomes an even deeper experience in this
revival, lovingly directed by Kenny Leon.
tells of the romance between Sarah Norman, a woman completely deaf from birth,
and James Leeds, a hearing speech teacher. James is newly arrived at the school
for the deaf that Sarah has attended since childhood and where she now lives
and works as a cleaning maid, while continuing to attend class.
There is an
almost immediate chemistry between them but a problem as well: Sarah’s refusal
to learn speech despite James’s impassioned arguments. “I have a language
that’s as good as yours,” she tells James early in their relationship, using
the sign language that has become her own articulate means of communication.
between them continues to grow more difficult even as they marry. There are
moments of bliss, but fiercer moments of antagonism as James pushes Sarah to
speech and Sarah, fearful of the distortion that speaking often engenders in
the deaf, implores James to understand the comfort of her world of silence.
high-stakes battlefield, and Leon in an inspired stroke of casting raises the
stakes even higher. The role of Sarah -- like the play’s other roles -- is not
specified as to race, but it has been played by white actresses, winning a Tony
Award for the late Phyllis Frelich in the original production (Medoff wrote the
role for her) and an Academy Award for Marlee Matlin, who starred in the 1986
film adaptation. In this revival, Lauren Ridloff, an actress of
African-American and Mexican descent and a former Miss Deaf America, plays
Sarah in an enormously moving performance. And while there is still no mention
of race in the text, her persona as an African-American heightens the
character’s aura of pride in difference and the play’s inference of the deep
prejudices in a society that still does not fully accept physical impairment –
or racial differences.
Lauren Ridloff and Kecia Lewis
To make it
clear that Sarah is a black woman and Ridloff not simply a matter of
non-traditional casting, he has cast another African-American actress, Kecia
Lewis, as Mrs. Norman, Sarah’s estranged and flinty mother. The elevated
resonance it gives the play is reflected in one particular exchange between
James and Mrs. Norman.
trying to force her to speak and lip read so she can pass for hearing,” Mrs.
“No, what I’m
trying to force on her is the ability to function in the same world you and I
do,” James responds.
“As if that
were something to aspire to,” she counters curtly. It’s a line that has the
audience responding audibly.
coups of casting, the acting, for the most part, is exceptional. Joshua Jackson brings affecting warmth, wit and strength to James, whose own life has been marked
by strife with his parents. Jackson nimbly handles the task of signing to
Sarah, working into his own dialogue the translations of what he and Sarah are
saying in sign language, and then letting it color his own emotional scoring.
It’s a quietly bravura turn without a false moment.
the supporting cast is Anthony Edwards, of ER television fame making his
Broadway debut. As the fuddy-duddy head of the school, Edwards brings an
additional dollop of humor to the proceedings, although the character could
probably use a bit less fuddy-duddy-ness.
John McGinty, Julee Cerda, and Lauren Ridloff
notable are John McGinty as Orin, a firebrand of a student at the school and
Sarah’s long-time friend, and Treshelle Edmond as Lydia, yet another student
with a girlish crush on James. As with Sarah, Medoff insists that these two
roles, in any professional production of the play, be performed by deaf or
the cast is Julee Cerda, as a lawyer somewhat cluelessly taking up the cause of
equal employment for the deaf at the school.
Leon’s staging moves the action fluidly on
the fairly abstract but striking set by Derek McLane, tellingly marked by a
series of door frames stunningly lit by Mike Baldassari. The sound design by
Jill BC Du Boff and original music composed by Branford Marsalis, along with
such soulful pop as Stevie Wonder’s “Love’s in Need of Love Today,” reinforce
both the romance and tension of the script.
production also gains credit for the accessibility it provides the
hearing-impaired. At every performance supertitles are projected atop the set
and closed captioning is available on Apple and Android devices. At certain
performances, American Sign Language interpreters will also be on hand.
accommodations plus the sterling play itself assure us that the gods of the
theater are not among the lesser ones.
254 West 54th
date announced; currently booking until September 9.