BWW REVIEW: Opposites Attract And Figure Out The Rest Later in CHILDREN OF A LESSER GOD
Even though he was a "left of liberal, right of radical" member of the Peace Corps turned Speech Therapist, James Leeds doesn't know what he's getting into when assigned to be Sarah Norman's teacher. Sarah was born deaf, unable (or maybe it's unwilling?) to read lips or speak and has settled for less by working as a janitor. James assures himself it'll be a snap and employs his trusty wit and guile to get the results. However, Sarah is far more complicated than he expects and together they fall into a tempest of discovery using unconventional communication methods.
Mark Medoff's Tony-winning play CHILDREN OF A LESSER GOD centers around a state school for the deaf in the 1970's and follows several interwoven faculty/student storylines. While the excitement builds once we learn where Medoff has placed his characters at the top, it's a quick deflation to see he's decided not to dive deeper into any of the interesting dynamics. Instead, his play is more about a relationship with poor communication skills than a focus on the Deaf community's struggle to assimilate into the hearing community.
Now, of course, a play with a mixture of hearing and non-hearing characters doesn't have to be about their differences. We are indeed living in a time when underrepresented cultures are allowed to live on the stage and screen without their identity being the driving force for a story, but when Medoff gives his play such a damning title, we are led to believe CHILDREN OF A LESSER GOD is an examination of heavier themes.
Joshua Jackson (TV's THE AFFAIR) plays James and delivers a disciplined performance of speaking and signing nearly all of his lines in unison. The audience members fluent in ASL seemed very pleased with Jackson's work at intermission. Alexandria Wailes work as the Artistic Sign Language Director is subtle and manages to give a life to the language making it another character on stage. Jackson's technical skill works against him since that confidence transfers into a performance reading as a bit too peppy and affable to make his act-two breakdown believable. James is often arrogant in his pedagogy, and when his tactics to get into Sarah's head fail, a layer is peeled away to reveal his antagonizing side. Neither trait mistakes him as the chummy man Jackson portrays.
Lauren Ridloff as Sarah has a firmer grasp on her character in Act Two when the conflict is at a roaring boil. Ridloff's Sarah in the first act is more elegant and calm than the script describes her. James calls her angry several times throughout the play, but Ridloff hardly taps into that descriptor. This choice is problematic since much of the first act surrounds them battling to connect. This conflict is the action propelling them both forward, and without stronger tactics, the battle appears more like a minor struggle leaving us following along to director Kenny Leon's brisk pacing without much evidence backing it.
The supporting cast delivers a masterclass in what talented actors can bring to underdeveloped roles. John McGinty as the outraged Orin is exceptional and one of the few onstage pushing the dramatic action forward in exciting ways. He colors Orin's anger with a precise focus and offers up many interesting shades to his character. Treshelle Edmond as the precarious Lydia brings an honest humor despite how ridiculous her character's motives may be. Tony winner Stephen Spinella as the school's administrator, Kecia Lewis as Sarah's mother, and Julee Cerda as a lawyer who appears in act two all add dimension to their cardboard cutout characters.
It's hard to identify a vision in Kenny Leon's production because much of the design elements are at odds with each other. The final result would suggest Leon was trying to make the piece more relevant by blurring the dated quality of the play with a vastness depicted in Derek McLane's heaven inspired set design and Mike Baldassari's lighting design which makes good use of blues and whites. Together, McLane and Baldassari frame the stage and with an orange glow amping up the modern perspective, but Dede M. Ayite's great costumes are period accurate and offer an unbalanced juxtaposition with sets and lights.
Tony-winning producer Hal Luftig announced a Broadway revival of CHILDREN OF A LESSER GOD under Leon's direction for the 2015/2016 season, but that production never materialized. Luftig is still attached to the play as a lead sponsor for Berkshire Theatre Group so its seems like a safe bet to assume the original announcement wasn't so much canceled as it was postponed.
Luftig's statement on why it's time to revive Medoff's play was to give New York a production with the intention "to reflect society today." The wise inclusion of actors of the Deaf community and actors of color to fill out the play work to support Luftig's statement. But before we get to a New York revival, patrons attending Berkshire Theatre Group's revival are likely to fall into two camps. A) those willing to overlook Medoff's lightweight script to champion a rarely represented population onstage or, b) those left with a sinking feeling of dread wondering if CHILDREN OF A LESSER GOD's flaws makes it worth revising at all.
CHILDREN OF A LESSER GOD runs at the Berkshire Theatre Group in Stockbridge, MA until July 22. Visit the website for tickets and additional information.