Children of a Lesser God is now playing at Studio 54.
A revival of 1980’s Tony award winning Children of a Lesser God opened this week at Studio 54. Much of the play still resonates in 2018, but the play does have a bit of a dated feel. The play tells the story of the conflicted professional and romantic relationship between Sarah Norman, a deaf student (Sarah Norman), and her teacher, James Leeds (Joshua Jackson). The tension centers on Sarah’s decision not to learn to speak, functioning in the world with only ASL/sign language. Forty years ago, Sarah’s notion was revolutionary. It’s not novel forty years later. Thankfully people who cannot speak are no longer called “dumb” and the ASL community has made many inroads for accommodations in the hearing world. Additionally, the issue of a professor/student relationship is glossed over, which seems out of place in our #metoo world.
The actors continue to make this play compelling. Sarah Norman does an exceptional job of conveying all the meaning and emotion in her “words” and allows the audience to understand how ASL can be even more expressive than spoken language. Joshua Jackson carries a heavy load, signing and speaking both his part and narrating all of Sarah’s signed speech. One is able to truly understand the role Leeds must play as Sarah’s guide to the hearing world. The paternalistic role he both wants to have but also must have to some degree as her protector only leads to frustration for both of them.
Strong performances by other cast members (Anthony Edwards as the school head master, Mr. Franklin, Kecia Lewis as Mrs. Norman, and two other deaf performers – John McGinty as Orin Dennis, a long time friend of Sarah and Treshelle Edmond as Lydia, a current student), particularly in the second act as the play’s conflict rises, support Jackson’s and Norman’s leads. All the actors are challenged by plot points that don’t all hit the mark (Leeds and Norman fall in love too fast; a secondary plot about a lawsuit the students are bringing against the school).
All the dialogue appears as surtitles (above the stage) to make the play accessible, which was helpful even for the hearing audience as some of the lines were sped through. The staging decision to use the same, fairly sparse, set for all the scenes stretched the audience’s imagination but perhaps put too much burden on the actors, taking their focus away from delivering their dialogue.
The central message of Children of a Lesser God is timeless. The desire to make our students, our partners or our children in our image will ultimately fail.
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