CHILDREN OF A LESSER GOD
CHILDREN OF A LESSER GOD (Berkshire Theatre Group, Stockbridge, MA)
If the primary duty of a theater director is to enhance the work of the playwright, Tony- winning director Kenny Leon is giving a master class in a splendid, poetic revitalization - beyond revival - of Mark Medoff’s CHILDREN OF A LESSER GOD now at the Berskshire Theatre Group in Stockbridge. Twenty-seven years after its original Broadway run, Leon has elevated the Tony Award-winning play about the conflicted love between a hearing husband and deaf wife from a parable about barriers in communication into a spiritual testament for tolerance and understanding.
Leon’s casting is impeccable, and holds a marvelous key to his fresh, vital conceptualization of the drama. Joshua Jackson, of television fame for The Affair, Dawson’s Creek, and The Fringe, brings youthful zeal to the role of James Leeds, unorthodox speech therapist, who falls in love with Sarah Norman, who was born deaf, played by an astonishing Lauren Ridloff (a former Miss Deaf America). Ms Ridloff happens to be African- American, and Kecia Lewis, too, who plays Sarah’s mother. By making race such a non-issue, Leon elevates Medoff’s themes to a higher level.
Sarah’s in her 20s working as a maid in a special school for the non-hearing, where she has dwelled since she was five, estranged from her mother, when she meets James. He wants the “fullest” life possible for her, believing he can “get” her to read lips and that she can be “taught” how to speak. Her hearing-less friends do, but she resists. When Sarah joins in a discrimination suit against the school where James teaches, the differences between them rip apart, revealing the terms of both the selfishness and selflessness of love.
Joshua and Ridloff bring a palpable, natural sexiness to James and Sarah. Ridloff, who started out as a consultant in sign-language on the project to director Leon years ago, had never acted on stage before. She is mesmerizing in her “silence” (which is really not silent at all) conveying a range from coqutteish tenderness to an angry ferocity, in both facial expression and sign. Most amazing is how Ridloff conveys secret pain, the deeply personal identity of her own impenetrable world. Mr. Jackson, who learned sign for the demanding role, succeeds in coordinating and timing his spoken dialogue with sign. Kudos to Alexandria Wailes, who directed sign language, even adapting the vocabulary from when the play was first performed to today.
Leon stages the story without props, with mimed action – thus accentuating text, both the spoken and “unspoken” - on a startling, crisp set by Derek McLane of white walls, surfaces and three doorways, outlined in neon-like red and blue. Costuming by Dede M. Ayite, with touches like bleached bell-bottom jeans, nods to the late 70s. Still, Leon plays it timelessly, cleverly using pop hits for background and interstitial score. Leon opens with Prince’s “Thieves Comes Quick” signaling a tale of a lover’s alienation. Later, for playful accent during James and Sarah’s romance he uses McCartney’s “Silly Love Songs.”
Leon poignantly works in signature tracks of Earth, Wind and Fire. The soothing rhythms of their music fits CHILDREN OF A LESSER GOD’s own soulful pulse, which moves us along with James and Sarah in the painful, human journey of seeing another, loving another, accepting another - as is.