The play made stars of two actresses, the late Phyllis Frelich, who won the best actress Tony in 1980, and Marlee Matlin, who won an Oscar for the 1986 film. The same will surely hold true for Ridloff, a former Miss Deaf America who was first hired to familiarize the revival's director, Kenny Leon, with the intricacies of sign language. She plays Sarah with a don't-mess-with-me vengeance, careful to not let vulnerabilities sneak through as she refuses the school's efforts to teach her to speak, explaining, "I don't do things I can't do well."
CHILDREN OF A LESSER GOD Broadway Reviews
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Two more D/deaf students are played with a truthful-feeling tenacity by John McGinty and Treshelle Edmond. Kenny Leon's production additionally makes unprecedented steps towards inclusivity, offering simultaneous supertitles as well as the text on a mobile App, and providing ASL interpreters at designated performances. Leon's absorbing production is only undermined by an ugly abstract set of door frames and naked tree trunks.
The pungency of sign language is not the subject of Mark Medoff's "Children of a Lesser God," which opened on Wednesday at Studio 54 in a mixed bag of a Broadway revival directed by Kenny Leon. But it's a wonderful bonus to the play's fierce rivalry between those who promote spoken English as the highest attainable form of communication and those who are staunch partisans of silence.
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.
The underwhelming revival (directed by Kenny Leon, the 2014 Broadway revival of "A Raisin in the Sun") does the play no favors with a slick, angular and metallic visual design that unnecessarily calls attention to itself. It also suffers from being played on the wide stage of Studio 54 instead of a more intimate venue.
Review: 'Children of a Lesser God' on Broadway: This is a powerful play, but the teacher falling for his deaf student has become problematic
But that doesn't mean "Children of a Lesser God" is an easy work to embrace in the current context. At least not without more revisions, or refocusing, than appears to have taken place before this first-ever Broadway revival.
Joshua Jackson and Lauren Ridloff shine in Broadway's uneven Children of a Lesser God revival: EW review
Broadway's new revival of 1980 Tony winner Children of a Lesser Godurges its audience to "#StartListening," but struggles at times to relay a clear message of its own.
‘Children of a Lesser God’ review: Joshua Jackson, Lauren Ridloff lead Broadway revival at Studio 54
There's something to admire about Mark Medoff's 1979 play "Children of a Lesser God" - even if the just-opened Broadway production of it starring Joshua Jackson and newcomer Lauren Ridloff at Studio 54 is only fitfully engaging and stirring.
More significant than the dated language or sexual politics is the play's core problem, which is also the problem of its characters. Sarah complains that hearing people who fail to respect her speechlessness "will never truly be able to come inside my silence and know me." Well, neither can we - barring some major rewrite that might allow us, for example, to read her words in supertitles instead of pausing the action as James recites them.
The abrupt emergence of the #MeToo movement may be the least of the play's problems. In the intervening years, the Deaf West Theatre has presented far better ways for non-speaking actors to perform on stage. At its heart, "Children of a Lesser God" is a two-hander with one actor doing all the talking.
The play is set, we are told, in the mind of James, and on stage he orbits between the world of the play and narrating and addressing us. That might explain Derek McLane's design in this production directed by Kenny Leon, a series of proscenium arches that act as both practical exits and entries to a classroom, a park, or James and Sarah's home, but also the many psychological chambers the play occupies.
Leon's sluggish production does eventually gather some steam in the second act, expanding beyond the banal romantic focus of impassioned teacher James Leeds (Joshua Jackson) and reluctant student Sarah Norman (Lauren Ridloff) into more complex issues. When it tightens its focus on the rights of deaf people to choose the terms on which they interact with the hearing world - weighing the virtues of American Sign Language, lip-reading, and speech with conflicting ideologies - you can see why this was an important work back in its time.
Lacking that solid thematic foundation, Medoff's play deflates into just another romantic drama about mismatched lovers struggling to surmount their differences and live happily ever after. The writer doesn't seem to have any special aptitude for the language of love, and his efforts to lighten it up - as in a cringeworthy scene in which James climbs a tree to reach Sarah's room - are embarrassing. While I don't mean to cast aspersions on Jackson's appeal, he doesn't give off much heat for a lover with a burning heart.
Children of a Lesser God lives on now mostly as a well-constructed if somewhat dated relationship drama and as a showcase for its two primary, argument-siding characters, here played by Jackson and Ridloff.
In 1982, I bought myself a ticket in the rear balcony to see "Children Of A Lesser God," and it was revelatory. But now, 36 years later in its first Broadway revival, it doesn't hold up all that well. The play, featuring deaf actors, still resonates, but the production is flawed.
For a play that includes a great deal of sign language, the Broadway revival of Mark Medoff's Children of a Lesser God is maddeningly heavy-handed. Time has been unkind to this 1979 drama about a confused and defiant deaf woman, Sarah (Lauren Ridloff), and the would-be-heroic speech therapist, James (Joshua Jackson), who romances her.