theater (reviews)

Outdated ‘Children of a Lesser God’ Falls on Deaf Ears

image-1-joshua-jackson-and-lauren-ridloff-matthew-murphy

Joshua Jackson as James Leeds and Lauren Ridloff as Sarah Norman. Photos: Matthew Murphy.

[Full article published in The Clyde Fitch Report, April 12, 2018.]

Sarah Norman, played by the luminous and graceful Lauren Ridloff in the new Broadway revival of Mark Medoff’s 1979 play, Children of a Lesser God, is a young deaf woman seeking her own voice and way to engage the world. Changing deaf community politics in the four decades since the original production, plus the stilted mechanics of Kenny Leon’s direction, plus the use of supertitles for what is and is not translated using that tool, create a murky mess of a story that might once have resonated but which hasn’t aged well.

The theme of women coming into their own, on their own terms, is long-established. It has been well-reinforced by mainstream film, from women finding their footing after marriage (1974’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore; 1992’s This is My Life; 2007’s Waitress) to women finding new life after widowhood (1993’s The Piano). In Children of a Lesser God, Sarah, who was sent to live at a state school and later worked there, is adept at American Sign Language (ASL) and the old-fashioned skill of lip reading, and refuses to speak aloud. It’s a political choice, not belligerent resistance, as is her decision to speak through signing. Yet this is an odd play to revive without adaptations, either in the text or in the staging.

For one thing, in this memory play we’re told the story of Sarah’s empowerment through the perspective of her teacher, James (the charming hearing actor Joshua Jackson), with whom she falls in love. The role was originated by John Rubinstein, who learned how to sign just as Jackson has done. Walter Kerr, then the Sunday critic at The New York Times, insensitively called Rubinstein’s graceful ASL hand gestures “symbolic mime.” That mistake won’t be repeated here to describe Jackson’s superlative skills.

For another, while there is a plot turn near the end of the play involving a lawsuit against the school for more deaf teachers, the deepening politics of the deaf community since 1979 remain largely unaddressed.

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