BWW Review: Echoes of G.B. Shaw in Mark Medoff's CHILDREN OF A LESSER GOD
While audiences gather at Lincoln Center to see Lerner and Lowe's musical adaptation of George Bernard Shaw's classic, there's a different kind of Pygmalion story being played out at Studio 54, where Mark Medoff's 1980 Tony winner for Best Play, Children of a Lesser God is receiving its first Broadway revival.
The Henry Higgins stand-in here is a teacher named James, played by Joshua Jackson in director Kenny Leon's production. The story is told through his memory, played out on designer Derek McLane's minimalist set, which is lit primarily in soft blues by designer Mike Baldassari.
Employed at a residential school for the deaf, James is tasked by the administrator, Mr. Franklin (comically stuffy Anthony Edwards), to teach his students to speak. His star pupils appear to be the serious-minded Orin (John McGinty) and the impish Lydia (Treshelle Edmond).
But the play's focus is on Sarah (Lauren Ridloff), an alumnus who works in the school as a janitor. Throughout the romance between Sarah and James, including their subsequent marriage, the major issue between them is James' desire for Sarah to learn spoken English, and her refusal.
To a hearing person like James, it may seem like a no-brainer, since speech would help Sarah assimilate into the world of the majority. But others, like Sarah, might see it as an attempt at "normalization" by requiring her to get along in the world on another culture's terms. (The fact that Jackson is white and Ridloff is a woman of color offers a visual parallel to the conflict.)
James sees speech as a superior way of communicating while Sarah regards signing as an equal method. Anyone interested in communicating with her can learn her language.
The husband comes off as especially insensitive when he expresses frustration at not being able to share his love of music with his wife, dismissing her insistence that it gives her great pleasure to feel it's vibrations, and that she can distinguish between styles.
The plot builds up steam when Orin recruits Sarah to support his lawsuit to get the school to employ deaf teachers, but she insists that instead of having their lawyer (Julee Cerda) present their case, that she be allowed to write a speech that she will sign and Orin will speak.
Certainly those who understand Ridloff's signing will better appreciate the details of her performance, but there's also a polar dynamic between two leading players that nearly hands the piece over to her. Jackson not only speaks his lines, but signs and speaks when James communicates with Sarah, and then speaks Sarah's responses for the benefit of the hearing audience. His calm demeanor while taking on this heavy workload seems an attempt to make James more sympathetic, despite his unintentionally oppressive attitude. Ridloff, on the other hand, is allowed more freedom to create an emotional dynamo of intelligence, anger, flirtation and independence.
With attitudes, and the language we use to express them, drastically changing in the nearly four decades since Children of a Lesser God first hit New York, the play's criticism of well-intentioned coddling of those of diverse abilities is now pretty much preaching to the choir. The play might be best viewed today as a period piece that helped popularize a way of thinking that is now much more widely accepted.