Mark Medoff wrote “Children of a Lesser God” specifically for Phyllis Frelich, a deaf actress who made her professional debut as the character Sarah Norman in the 1979 production at the Mark Taper Forum and went on to play the part on Broadway the following year. The deaf actress Marlee Matlin appeared opposite William Hurt in the 1986 film version. Now, Lauren Ridloff, who starred as Sarah in the Berkshire Theater production last year, reprises the role on Broadway, continuing the tradition of deaf actresses who come out of nowhere and knock us off our feet.
Ridloff is a stunning performer. As slender and graceful as a dancer, she moves like a wood nymph in costumer Dede Ayite’s gauzy dresses, and when she speaks, through American Sign Language, her flashing fingers are hypnotically seductive.
There’s also a steely quality to her lithe frame — all the better to embody her character’s proud refusal to insinuate her way into the hearing world. As Sarah’s mother (Kecia Lewis, nicely done) protests to her daughter’s speech therapist, “You’re still trying to force her to speak and lip read so she can pass for hearing.”
Joshua Jackson (“Dawson’s Creek,” “The Affair”) plays that speech therapist, James Leeds, who is tutoring Sarah and falls in love with her. But “Sarah has a certain aversion to learning speech,” as the school’s headmaster delicately puts it, so human communication — the bedrock of civilization and the language of lovers — becomes a huge challenge for this mismatched couple. The “cute” banter with which James eventually wins Sarah’s heart is unspeakably banal, and if it weren’t for the political conflict embedded in the text, we’d be itching with boredom.
This conflict has to do with the politics of deaf people learning the language of the speaking majority, which implies that deafness is a flaw that can only be overcome by learning to communicate with the hearing. To certain young radicals among the deaf community, deafness is no “handicap,” but “a silence filled with sound,” a world unto itself. Since the deaf have their own methods of communication, there’s no need for them to learn any other language but their own.
The controversial politics of this position is worth a fight, and Orin Dennis, another deaf student played with proper passion by John McGinty, makes a compelling case for the cause of those who feel no need to interact at all with the hearing society. To hear James tell it, Orin wants to lead a political revolution against the hearing world — and he wants Sarah by his side.
Memory can be deceptive, but it does seem as if this existential conflict between the speaking world and the silent world was portrayed more forcefully in the original production. In this revival, directed by Kenny Leon, the argument doesn’t really surface until the end of the play.
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.
To be fair, Jackson has a lot of chores to perform in this play. Besides playing his own role, he must give voice to all of Sarah’s dialogue. Although deaf members of the audience will be able to read Sarah’s sign language, someone has to translate that language for the hearing and that someone can only be James. Conversely, for the sake of the deaf, James’s dialogue is projected onto supertitles above the stage.
None of this production business is as busy as it sounds, but it does put a special strain on Jackson, who is barely up to it. The actor speaks in a slow, careful monotone that probably works nicely for the lip-readers in the house, but proves soporific for the hearing.