Children of a Lesser God
nytheatre.com review by Stan Richardson
March 18, 2006
American Sign Language (ASL) can convey the most vulnerable emotions with the magic and grandiosity of fireworks. And when performed with the wit and celerity of an actress such as Alexandria Wailes, this intimate spectacle can upstage the well-meaning words of most any playwright. Mark Medoff, and his play, Children of a Lesser God, currently in revival by the Keen Company at the Connelly Theater (starring Wailes), meets with such a blessed / cursed fate.
The play, a love story with a social conscience, revolves around the relationship between Sarah Norman, a young deaf woman who refuses to learn to speak, and James Leeds, a speech therapist who thinks her life would be much better off if she did. Sarah’s ostensibly stubborn resistance is really a fear that this compromise will corrupt her identity—what will her relationship be to the non-hearing community if she allows herself to participate in the hearing world? Medoff, like James, earnestly seems to suggest that this compromise is but a plank to further bridge the gap between her inner and outer worlds (indeed, other people are unknowable enough when they do share the same language). Yet beyond the pragmatism of it all, neither the therapist (nor the playwright himself) makes a very convincing case for verbal expression.
Words continually fail James, and Medoff’s most poetic verbiage cannot hold a candle to the vivid images ASL can conjure. I have not seen the play staged before, nor have I seen the 1986 film version, but I suspect this may have been the case in those, as well. In fact, this phenomenon may be by design. But the result, to put it plainly, is that James’s speeches—be they addressed to the audience (for he is also our narrator) or confessional reminiscences from his childhood (usually addressed to Sarah, but seemingly dictated by his capacity to sign)—are both didactic and dull.
Jeffry Denman does his best with them and is a suitable if not quite a fair match for Wailes, who already has the advantage of her character being utterly fascinating to both the narrator and the playwright, and whose signing and stillness are equally enthralling. (Attention must be paid here to Jackie Roth, who is credited as both the ASL translator and coach.) However, the Keen Company’s production does not have much else on offer.
Director Blake Lawrence has chosen to heighten a certain sacrosanctity in the play that she might have better worked against. James is overly-earnest, nearly ever-apologetic, but his moments alone with the audience (if theoretically few and far between) feel interminable; the moments of stage action without words or ASL (usually involving James and Sarah falling deeper into love or making up after a fight) come across as a little precious. (There are two lovely moments— one at the end of each act—which are notable exceptions.)
The ensemble—in addition to Wailes and Denman, a group of talented actors in not-terribly-thankful roles— has a rather awkward go of it as they navigate Nathan Heverin’s multiplatformed but flat-seeming set (though he does have a bit of platform that doubles surprisingly and nicely as a dinner table). And, obviously, there is more to the play as well, events that dictate the need for such an ensemble. But the subplots are just not as interesting to describe as what ASL and specifically Wailes can do without words, which is, at times, breathtaking.