“For all of my life people have spoken for me — she says, she means, she wants — as if there is no I. I have been the creation of other people.”
These words from Mark Medoff’s brilliant and moving play “Children of a Lesser God” have such an astonishing and lasting resonance. Stop and think for a moment about not being able to have others truly hear the organic you because you “need to be filtered.” Not just your words, but the essence of you, the sound of you. How would you react to a society that has deemed you must conform in order to communicate with a larger world?
Medoff’s play takes place in the mind and memory of James Leeds (Joshua Jackson), a thirty-something speech teacher at an institution for the deaf, as he re-examines his relationship with Sarah Norman (Lauren Ridloff), a twenty-something woman, deaf from birth, who works at the same school. Buoyed by his personal success with his other students Lydia (Treshelle Edmond) and Orrin (John McGinty) who are deaf with residual hearing and have learned to lip read, James is asked to face the challenge of teaching Sarah.
Angry and somewhat bitter, Sarah has rejected the terms of entering the hearing world by steadfastly refusing to learn to lip-read or to speak. Boundaries blur and change as James and Sarah find a common bond and begin to connect. But do they truly understand each other’s needs? Are they — can they — listen to what each other want?
A soft and often poignant amalgam of romance, social science and activism, Medoff’s play completely captivates without preach or pander as it entertains and informs its audience. This lovely production of a seldom seen gem, handsomely designed and sensitively directed by Kenny Leon, is a welcome and stunning achievement.
As to why this play is seldom seen is open to debate, but one of the reasons might be its casting demands. The two leading roles are quite challenging with the role of James being quite a daunting one to perform, Not only must the actor create a sensitive and caring man struggling from his own emotional wounds, he must do that while performing the role, signing the role and translating the responses from his castmate. Happily Jackson offers a winningly solid performance. Stocked with an unimpeachable truthfulness that never cloys or drifts to cliché, Jackson is outstanding.
And Ridloff is wonderfully good. Perfecting the purr of a young woman preening her aura of being attractively aloof and alluring with a hurt that has yet to find a salve, Ridloff never obscures Sarah’s struggle to make an honest and meaningful connection.
And in the play’s closing moments, Ridloff allows Sarah’s final monologue to land with a beautiful balance of emotion, want and wish. All the scenes between Jackson and Ridloff are electric and crackle with fire. But as good as both of these actors are there is a small, crucial piece missing. The spark of initial contact, that brief moment, that instant of initial infatuation and mutual want between James and Sarah has, rather ironically, been muted. This visceral misstep allows the passion to appear proleptic, faded even as it is performed. The fire between the two is technically there, but it burns inorganic and at times, too controlled.
The rest of the supporting cast, in addition to the aforementioned Edmond and McGinty, are quite fine as well. Stephen Spinella as James’ boss Mr. Franklin, Kecia Lewis as Sarah’s mother and Julee Cerda as Edna the lawyer Orrin hires to file a complaint against the school, all offer solid support. Technically the show is a gem. Derek McLane’s setting is appropriately spare and dreamlike, perfectly accented by Mike Baldassari’s lighting design and Dede M. Ayite’s costumes. This is a great production of a seldom play. Highly recommended.
‘Children of a Lesser God’
WHERE: Berkshire Theater Group, The Fitzpatrick Main Stage, 83 East Main St., Stockbridge, MA
WHEN: Through July 22
HOW MUCH: $65
MORE INFO: 413-997-4444, www.berkshiretheatregroup.org
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