If anything, the Keen Company’s revival of “Children of a Lesser God” suffers from an abundance of taste. The quest for respectability makes sense, considering that New Yorkers haven’t seen a professional staging of Mark Medoff’s Tony-winning drama since it finished its two-year Broadway run in 1982. Given that legacy — plus the film that brought Marlee Matlin an Oscar — Keen has arguably taken on a minor classic, or at least a show that has remained untainted in popular memory. But with two workmanlike stars and a focus on social themes over personal interaction, this tale of a deaf woman who falls in love with her speech teacher mostly becomes an artifact of past success.
The burden of making this play come alive lies squarely on the two leads. Not only must James (Jeffry Denman) and his deaf pupil Sarah (Alexandria Wailes) convincingly fall in love, they must also shoulder the play’s major conceit. Refusing to speak or lip-read like some of her hearing-impaired classmates, Sarah signs everything she says, and Medoff has James — who’s also our narrator — translate her lines into spoken English.
This creates some head-scratching moments — would James really repeat Sarah’s words when they’re alone? But it also offers a vivid reminder that the deaf and hearing worlds are not the same. As Wailes, who is actually hearing impaired, forms her hands into their own language, it’s obvious that the English translations are missing some of what she means.
There’s a divide, the play argues, that can only be bridged when the hearing and the deaf acknowledge that each group has its own valuable culture and that sound does not necessitate superiority.
Director Blake Lawrence is clearest when he’s highlighting this thesis. The production’s centerpiece comes when Sarah delivers a speech on why she should be allowed to teach at her own school. Standing on a high platform and lit by Josh Bradford to appear like she’s stepping from a dream, Sarah signs a tribute to her own silent existence.
Even though Denman still speaks aloud, Wailes’ perf launches into a rapture that surpasses him. The fluidity and speed of her signing become an expression of Sarah’s vital inner life.
Otherwise, however, there’s little vitality to be seen. Outside that speech, Wailes’ work offers scant variation. No matter if she’s confessing her fears to her new husband or trying to finish a quiche, she always strikes the same emotional note of vague annoyance.
Denman, too, strays little beyond his placid demeanor, even though James is written as a volatile, sexually charged crusader who helps others in order to avoid his own secrets. By keeping him endlessly sanguine, Denman makes the character a reliable narrator, but he misses the passion we hear described in the text.
Lacking chemistry, Denman and Wailes becoming frustratingly respectable for a couple who talk so much about sex and politics (everyone has an opinion on Vietnam, religion, or education). Their rigidity also highlights the stiffness of Lawrence’s stage pictures. Thesps’ movements feel so carefully plotted that they lack any sense of spontaneity.
(Only Guthrie Nutter — playing Orin, a political agitator for deaf causes — manages to move and speak as though his actions were occurring to him in the moment.)
In the absence of palpable love, the production loses its most crucial human element. We are left with a literal understanding of how the deaf and hearing worlds are different, but we never feel the essence of those who want desperately to unite them.