The first Broadway revival of “Children of a Lesser God,” the award-winning, boundary-breaking 1980 play by Mark Medoff about the romance and eventual marriage between a hearing teacher at a school for the deaf and a deaf graduate, is the only show on Broadway whose creative team includes a “director of artistic sign language.” It is the only show on Broadway to project supertitles of the entire script at EVERY performance, and to schedule sign language interpreters regularly. And, above all, it is of course the only show that marks the stunning Broadway debut of Lauren Ridloff, who portrays Sarah Norman, whose language (like the actress’s) is American Sign Language.
These are reasons enough to welcome this production, and to consider it pioneering, even as the play it’s remounting feels dated.
As “Children of a Lesser God” begins, James Leed (Joshua Jackson) has just started work at the school, where he is already shown to be a better teacher, or at least better-liked by his students, than his supervisor Mr. Franklin (Anthony Edwards.) Franklin asks James to take on Sarah as his assistant. Sarah has been at the school since she was five years old. Now 26, she long ago graduated, but, although her test scores show her as exceptionally intelligent, she has continued to hang out there, working as a maid. James takes it as his mission to change that. He wants her to acquire the “communications skills to have her get into college, or at least a good trade school,” as he tells Sarah’s mother (Kecia Lewis, great as always but underutilized.)
“In other words,” her mother replies, “you’re still trying to force her to speak and lip read so she can pass for hearing.”
This is the crux of the conflict in the play, even after James and Sarah fall in love.
Not long after “Children of a Lesser God” was first produced, deaf rights became a headline-grabbing issue, when the Gallaudet student protest of 1988 resulted in the installation of the first deaf president in the then 124-year history of this world-class university for deaf students. The Gallaudet students and their supporters were demanding respect for their culture and their language. It’s true that “Children of a Lesser God” deserves some credit for presenting a similar scenario, fictional and in miniature, years before the actual events occurred. In Act II, Orin (stand-out John McGinty), a student in the school, hires a lawyer to get the school to hire a deaf teacher! But both the fictional and the actual protests occurred decades ago.
It wouldn’t be quite accurate to say that the conflict is now a dead issue in the community (by which I mean both the deaf community and the community of educators.) But the contours of the arguments have changed, thanks to everything from technology to the law to the greater cultural awareness by the society at large. As respectful as “Children of a Lesser God” is towards the deaf point of view – James is shown as well-meaning but ignorant – the play is still presented entirely from his perspective. The program informs us that “the play takes place in the mind of James Leeds.” And Jackson not only speaks the lines of his own character while simultaneously signing them; he also translates into English nearly everything that Ridloff’s character is signing. In real life, James surely wouldn’t do this, not even in his own mind (not least because the grammatical structure of English and ASL are completely different; anybody serious about mastering ASL would attempt to think in ASL, not in English, while signing.) No, the actor is doing this for the sake of the audience, most of whom presumably don’t know ASL. But, less than three years after the seamless and inspired integration of speaking/singing and signing actors in the Deaf West production of “Spring Awakening” on Broadway, there were surely more inventive ways that “Children of a Lesser God” director Kenny Leon (who did such fine work in Broadway revivals of “Raisin in the Sun “and “Fences”) could have engaged its hearing theatergoers.
The problem in choosing to have Jackson literally speak for Sarah is not just the implicit politics of it; it’s also a practical matter. As TV viewers of “Dawson’s Creek” and “The Affair,” know, Jackson is a charming actor, but his halting efforts to use two languages at the same time feels awkward, and turns tedious.
Jackson is one of the five cast members, out of seven, who are making their Broadway debuts. The others have an easier go of it.
In particular, Ridloff, a former Miss Deaf America, makes Sarah passionate, eloquent and graceful in the upper body ballet that is ASL. “Children of a Lesser God” made stars of both Phyllis Frelich, who won the best actress Tony in 1980, and Marlee Matlin, who won an Oscar for the 1986 film. It could happen a third time. When near the end of the play, Ridloff insists on “speaking” for herself, it is stirring. If only the play didn’t seem to undermine her efforts.
Children of a Lesser God
Written by Mark Medoff, directed by Kenny Leon
Set design by Derek McLane, costume design by Dede Ayite, lighting design by Mike Baldassari, sound design by Jill BC Du Boff, original music by Branford Marsalis, director of artistic sign language by Alexandria Wailes
Cast: Joshua Jackson Lauren Ridloff, Anthony Edwards, Kecia Lewis, Julee Cerda, Treshelle Edmond, and John McGinty.
Running time: Two hours and 35 minutes including an intermission
Tickets: $55 to $149
Update: Children of a Lesser God will close May 17, 2018, after 23 previews and 54 regular performances.