- New York Theatre Critic
“For why is all around us here/As if some lesser god had made the world/But had not force to shape it as he would?” – Alfred Tennyson
The current Broadway revival of the groundbreaking play “Children of a Lesser God,” the first since it opened thirty-eight years ago to win the Tony award for best play, does not seem to have the emotional impact as the original. Playwright Mark Medoff has penned the love story of James Leeds, a speech therapist at a school for the deaf, and Sarah Norman, deaf since birth, who is not a student but works as a custodian at the school. The technique used to present the play is intriguing, since the actor portraying James speaks his dialogue and repeats Sarah’s words as she signs her responses, speaking for both characters. This is certainly an enormous task, and although an ingenious concept, it does lend itself to complications in relating emotional content and depth of character.
Time has not been kind to Mr. Medoff’s script, which now seems histrionic, lending no insight into understanding the incapacitating relationship but rather just hoping for a dramatic solution to the problem. The result seems sanctimonious which sabotages the reality and tries to influence the emotional response of the audience without educating them. The play contains several means of communication which include verbal, physical expression, sign language and now the addition of supertitles so hearing-impaired audience members can read vocal dialogue which is not signed.
Joshua Jackson gives a valid and notable performance as James, which masters the extensive dialogue, and is fine when executing his own words, but lacks the impassioned tone that should complement Sarah’s expressions when delivering her lines. If you watch her face as she signs and listen to his voice as he recapitulates, there is a disconnect, which tends to eradicate emotion and merely tell the story. Lauren Ridloff is a joy to watch as Sarah and gives an impressive Broadway debut, sculpting words with fluid movements that float in the air, accompanied by miens of anger, joy, passion and concern. Her entire being is a tool for communication. Both actors deftly execute their roles with integrity but lack a certain chemistry needed to elevate the relationship. The supporting roles are just that, although performed by a talented cast, seem to exist merely to fill the gaps that exist in the script. Kecia Lewis gives an honest and endearing nature to Mrs. Norman (Sarah’s mother) filled with empathy, strength and solicitude.
The stark, clean contemporary scenic design by Derek McLane seems less real and more atmospheric and is supported by the almost futuristic lighting by Mike Baldassari, perhaps purposely to escalate the premise that this all takes place in the mind of James. Neither aspect aids in humanizing the relationship and renders a sterile environment void of any imperfection. Director Kenny Leon has approached this production from too many angles that never seem to align to form a complete shape.
Mr. Medoff’s play will forever hold its place in theater history, but now in the twenty-first century there seems to be a surge in social equality and Tennyson’s words may now refer to all those who exercise their ability to hurt, hate, kill and murder as the product of a lesser god.
CHILDREN OF A LESSER GOD
The cast of “Children of A Lesser God” features Julee Cerda, Treshelle Edmond, Anthony Edwards, Joshua Jackson, Kecia Lewis, John McGinty, and Lauren Ridloff.
The creative team for “Children of A Lesser God” features Derek McLane (set design), Dede Ayite (costume design), Mike Baldassari (lighting design), Jill BC Du Boff (sound design), Branford Marsalis (original music), and Alexandria Wailes (director of artistic sign language). Casting for the production is by Telsey + Company. Production photos by Matthew Murphy.
Tickets for “Children of A Lesser God” can be purchased at www.telecharge.com, by calling 212-239-6200, or at the Studio 54 box office (254 West 54th Street). For more information about “Children of A Lesser God,” including performance times and cast biographies, visit childrenofalessergodbroadway.com/. Running time is 2 hours and 35 minutes including one intermission.
Photo: Lauren Ridloff and Joshua Jackson in “Children of a Lesser God.” Credit: Matthew Murphy.