As we’ve been reminded repeatedly in recent months – even though it should never have been necessary – everyone has the right to be heard, especially women and other minorities whose rights have been trampled by those in power. It’s that message that resonates more strongly than ever in Mark Medoff’s 1980 Tony Award-winning play Children of a Lesser God, now receiving its first-ever Broadway revival at Studio 54. Otherwise, the piece feels only modestly affecting and somewhat dated.
The advocate of this still-important truth is, perhaps ironically, Sarah Norman (the beautiful, expressive Lauren Ridloff), a 26-year-old who has been deaf since birth, and who steadfastly refuses to learn to speak. (Whether Sarah can even read lips is questionable). Sarah is absolutely able to communicate her thoughts and feelings through her hands, even going so far as to contest that her language is just as good if not better than our spoken one, as one gesture can equal 50 English words.
And yet – as Sarah is constantly reminded by those around her – most notably her speech therapist turned husband James Leeds (Joshua Jackson) – there’s a certain lack of reality in her insistence that the world should meet her on her terms. (Is everyone supposed to somehow learn American Sign Language?) Further, it’s always slightly unclear that the reason she is equally unwilling to learn to talk is purely ideological, and not just partly the byproduct of Sarah’s fear of how she will sound if she’s forced to open her mouth.
The story of Sarah’s struggle is related entirely by James (the play takes place in his mind), whose often-glib exterior obviously hides a wounded, sincere and surprisingly conventional heart. Jackson, who must speak throughout the entire play for both himself and Sarah (as well as sign), certainly deserves our highest commendation for completing this Herculean task. Still, for much of the first act – in which Sarah and James meet, fall in love instantly and marry hastily – Jackson’s acting is a tad too reminiscent of what might be found in a Hollywood romcom.
When the going gets much tougher in the second act (which is dominated by a never quite believable plot in which Sarah joins her longtime friend Orin in a lawsuit against the school for the deaf they attended and where James teaches), Jackson pulls off some of Medoff’s more dramatic (and melodramatic) scenes with true conviction. Nonetheless, his performance never completely coalesces. We need to be consistently aware that James is just as wounded as Sarah, and we’re not.
It doesn’t help that Kenny Leon’s entire production feels a bit more lightweight than it should have, from his use of R&B and pop standards that will tempt you to sing along to Derek McLane’s too-pretty abstract set, a world of trees, doorframes and empty spaces that effectively fill in for the show’s many locations.
To his credit, though, Leon has cast the play well. Former ER star Anthony Edwards is quite funny as school head Mr. Franklin (who often comes off as Medoff’s voice of reason). John McGinty is properly obnoxious and self-righteous as the combative Orin. Treshelle Edmond is delightful as flirtatious student Lydia, who tries valiantly to replace Sarah in James’ heart and bed. And Kecia Lewis is tough-yet-tender as Sarah’s mother, a hearing woman who was eventually rejected by her headstrong daughter.
The show’s producers are to be commended for providing surtitles above the stage, allowing non-hearing people to follow all the dialogue. Sadly, however, they didn’t seem to realize that people sitting in the back of orchestra will be unable to read them. So much for everyone having equal rights – even in a theater!