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CurtainUp
A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review
Children of a Lesser God
By Evan Henerson
The play is written in a way that ensures that it will
always be timely. It is also a nostalgia-tinted window
into the past of our community. We revisit it partly to
remind us that we still have so much progress yet to
make. There will always be a Sarah Norman in all of
us.
— David Kurs, "A Look Back: 30 years" from the
program of Children of a Lesser God at Deaf West
Theatre.
Though I suspect he would strongly
disagree, it's beginning to look as though
Mark Medoff's most significant gift to the
world of dramatic literature is not the
seminal 1979 play Children of a Lesser God, but its 1986 screen adaptation. The original, a
landmark play and a Tony winner, may still have much to say about isolation, outsider-dom
and activism, but the passage of time is not the friend to Sarah Norman, James Leeds and Orin
Dennis that Medoff must have hoped it would be. Consequently, a 30th year anniversary of
Lesser God is being staged with much professionalism by Deaf West Theatre — exactly the
company that should be tackling it.
Shoshannah Stern and Matthew
Jaeger(Photo credit: Michael Lamont)
The actors are up to snuff, occasionally something more. The director was the stage manager
on the original Mark Taper Forum and Broadway production. All systems go, right? Not
quite.
Why anybody would want to open a "nostalgia-tinted window"— as associate producer David
Kurs calls it — on this story is anybody's guess. Lesser God, the play, is fueled in part by righteous anger over the deaf
community's feelings of marginalization. Sarah Norman's desperate need to become her own person, amidst a rarely friendly
landscape, seems hardly the stuff of nostalgia. The movie, by vivid contrast, was a love story first, a passion-laced romance
between two people — one profoundly deaf, the other a hearing person and a teacher — who very much belonged together even if
they would need to chart their own course to make that possible.
The play's politics were, at best peripheral, and mostly absent. Their presence in Jonathan Barlow Lee's production serves largely
to bog down the action. No sooner does she become the wife of her Pygmalion-esque speech therapist James Leeds, then Sarah
Norman is recruited by another activist to sue the school where she and James worked over discriminatory hiring practices. The
school, the students insist, needs more deaf teachers. Well and good, except Sarah is no more interested in being defined by her
politics than she is in carving out an identity for herself as the suburban bridge-playing wife of a speech teacher.
Toward the end of a long and messy second act, Sarah writes a speech which will be delivered to either a committee or a jury.
"Until you let me be an individual," she writes, " and I, just as you are, you will never truly be able to come inside my silence and
know me. And until you can do that, I will never let myself know you."
Great speech, right? And Leeds, her husband, correctly recognizing Sarah's words apply to his treatment as it does to the rest of the
world, calls her on it. Their argument precipitates a climax that remains — 30 years later — a frightening and heartbreaking
moment.
Shoshannah Stern, the talented actress of Deaf West's previous Open Window can convey as much with silence — glances, a head
shake or the correct gesture — as many actors can with speech. The play's thorny second half is saved largely through her efforts.
Less credible is any genuine heat between Stern and Matthew Jaeger's Leeds. Jaeger, who buttons and unbuttons his sport coat
easily 30 times in the course of the play, has an easy likeability, and he certainly gets Leeds's humor. Credit the actor also for
learning the ASL duties — he essentially has to translate much of Sarah's speech — with consummate expertise.
Do we buy that the woman who started out as his project has become the person without whom he is an emotional wreck? Not so
much. This lack of connection may well be the script's doing as much as the actors. Children of a Lesser God wants, in a sense, to
be two plays at once. Or one play and one political statement.
Whether it's commissioning a world premiere or adapting a classic or musical into a sign language friendly version, Deaf West
universally figures out ways to include all audiences. Between Jaeger's smooth signing and translating and projected supertitles for
any non signed dialog, Lee's production is plenty smooth and easily understood. Costumes (by Dianne K Graebner), references and
the like are all distinctly 1970s. Could the play update to the present? Probably not, and Medoff — at work on another play for
original Lesser God star Phyllis Frelich — has no real reason to attempt it. As it is, the play made me want to see the movie again.
Stronger, more time resistant drama packs a stronger punch.