Watching Children of a Lesser God is not easy. Immediately you become a very active, implicated participant in its study of the relationship of a deaf-from-birth woman, Sarah Norman (Lauren Ridloff), and her hearing husband, James Leeds (The Affair’s Joshua Jackson), a teacher at a State School for the Deaf.
The play, opening Wednesday night on Broadway at Studio 54, is about communication, its facility and genius, and its weakness and many failures. We observe how the hearing interact with the non-hearing, and how the non-hearing navigate the hearing world around them, within the domestic and intimate context of Sarah and James’ home and work lives.
Who is hearing whom, who is speaking for whom, who is signing for whom? Is speech therapist James’ desire for his wife to learn to speak an admirable one, or a violation of her deaf selfhood?
Just as James, who is fluent in sign language, is needed to interpret Sarah to the world within the play, so Jackson is needed to interpret Ridloff for us. In the play, this leads to Sarah feeling hugely disempowered and frustrated, which threatens their relationship.
That frustration is vividly and movingly evoked by the excellent Ridloff, herself deaf and here making both her acting and Broadway debuts. Every emotion passes over her face; her signing has its own expressiveness.
Mark Medoff’s play, originally written in 1979, was adapted into a notable 1986 movie starring Marlee Matlin as Sarah and William Hurt as James; Matlin won both the Oscar and Golden Globe for Best Actress that year. It was Matlin’s first film performance, and she remains the only deaf actress to have won an Oscar. (She later alleged Hurt had physically and emotionally abused her during a relationship they had had.)
The play is set, we are told, in the mind of James, and on stage he orbits between the world of the play and narrating and addressing us. That might explain Derek McLane’s design in this production directed by Kenny Leon, a series of proscenium arches that act as both practical exits and entries to a classroom, a park, or James and Sarah’s home, but also the many psychological chambers the play occupies.
If the play is about the breakdown of communication, its producers are doing all they can to make it accessible to all. There are subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing above the stage; there is also closed captioning available through the GalaPro app (available on Apple or Android devices), and at some performances there will be ASL interpreters.
Jackson’s performance is truly astonishing, an interpretive balancing act that he performs with a smooth, beguiling ease (even as he strips to reveal his “hard” ass—and it is). You don’t recognize his virtuosic act of dramatic navigation as such until afterward, when you consider what he is doing because he does it so naturally, so easily. The same easygoing charm he had as Pacey in Dawson’s Creek (forever in our hearts) is on full show here.
James is a character in his own right, and both the narrator of the play for us and the interpreter for us and other characters of Sarah. He must argue with her and then respond for her, and contextualize the argument for us. That also makes him unreliable. What would we learn of Sarah if she could communicate with us without his mediation?
The first issue the play raises has nothing to do with deafness but the relationship of James and Sarah in the first place. He is a speech therapist at a school for the deaf; she is a former student and janitor. There is no discussion of their power differential, or the acceptability or not of him as a hearing teacher and she as a deaf former student getting together.
This is a failure on the part of the text rather than the less-aware era that it was written in, because a significant moment within it is the revelation by Sarah of the brutal sexual abuse she endured in the past. The memory of abuse is very present for her, and—although the play never raises it as an issue or possibility—surely as a character Sarah would be wary of any dynamic that came with even its most distant echo.
Quickly, James and Sarah seem a happy, in-love couple. This is another textual mystery: As people they seem entirely different. He is bluff and easygoing, open and accepting. She is always on edge.
Sure, they find each other hot, and what they have in common is corresponding pain from their childhoods—he even pretended to be deaf as a little boy to stop his mother from speaking to him.
But that shared experience is hardly compatibility. That James wants Sarah to learn to speak is at first thorny and then becomes the relationship’s biggest time bomb.
You don’t want them to break up, but this critic wasn’t entirely sure why they had gotten together in the first place. The bitty in-the-play, out-of-the-play structure is another impediment. The play is a series of episodes rather than flowing drama. The best scenes are the longer ones, when Sarah and James can actually emote together, rather than he having to exit to be our sensible guide.
James seems to genuinely love Sarah and is horrified by the casual deaf-ignorance of supervising teacher Mr. Franklin (Anthony Edwards, ER’s Mark Green). He sees Sarah and the other children at the school as passive instruments.
Edwards is bluffly, clammily patronizing, particularly in an excruciating scene in which he plays bridge with Sarah, convinced she is cheating.
Franklin’s dismissiveness and narrow-mindedness is one symbol of tension around James and Sarah’s relationship. The others are sketched not so well in the play; they feel like point-making adjuncts. Kecia Lewis gives a restrained portrayal as Sarah’s estranged, non-comprehending, hearing mother, and more of mother and daughter’s story is needed to give it an impactful arc.
Orin Dennis (John McGinty) is a hard-of-hearing, lip-reading friend of Sarah’s, who sees her in traitorous terms for having turned her back on her deaf compadres to be with James. Just wait for Orin and Sarah’s furious argument in sign language; it looks like whip-fast karate from the stalls, to James—even with his ASL-trained eye—it reads as “Hungarian.”
Political and fired-up to challenge the State School’s policies and practices, Orin’s angry activism is in contrast to the slyer presence of hard-of-hearing Lydia (Treshelle Edmond), who has a crush on James and whom Sarah cannot stand. (As per Medoff’s 1979 instructions, the roles of Sarah, Orin, and Lydia are performed by deaf or hearing-impaired actors.)
A lawyer, Edna Klein (Julee Cerda), who is set to fight the school on its policies and practices around deafness, is another extension of the hearing world: all at sea among the deaf, desperate not to say the wrong thing, and all too quick to congratulate herself for having mastered some basic sign language.
Increasingly, Sarah feels lost around everyone. To James, she says, “You want me to be a deaf person so you can change me into a hearing person… Orin doesn’t want me to be a hearing person because he needs a pure deaf person… And the lady lawyer wants me to hate being deaf so all the hearing people will feel sorry for me.”
She tells James: “I want to be joined to other people, but for all my life people have spoken for me. She says, she means, she wants. As if there were no I. As if there were no one in here who could understand. Until you let me be an individual, an 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. Until that time, we cannot be joined. We cannot share a relationship.”
James tells her furiously, “I don’t think you think being deaf is so goddamn wonderful.” Then, restraining her physically (surely echoing the attacks she has suffered earlier in her life), he says: “You want to talk to me, then you learn my language!” You can see his point and hers, but there is no meeting in the middle.
The breakdown of communication between the couple is both internal and external, emotional and intellectual—and leads to Sarah using her voice finally. The words she says are barely intelligible, but we understand them. It is her frustration of having power taken away from her, of having no voice in every definition of that phrase, that is the root of her desperation.
Is it because Jackson is such easy company and Sarah so moody and sullen that we find our sympathies aligning with him? Perhaps, plus Jackson’s skill in navigating us through the play is akin to a being with a cheery mountain guide. You look to him as an authority, he looks at you benignly and leads you to the next cairn.
But watch your footing: The point of the play becomes the point of you watching the play. Who would you rather listen to? Who would you rather hear? How should we communicate? Do we have a responsibility, or choice, to communicate? The play provides conflicting answers, and a tellingly downbeat conclusion.
As much as you care about James and Sarah, and the prejudices and misconceptions of the world the play sketches out, the play also forces you to confront your own hearing-unimpaired laziness. If you go to Children of a Lesser God, watch Ridloff as closely as you watch Jackson. The play is Sarah’s story, but she doesn’t tell it and you have to work hard to really hear it—and her.
Children of a Lesser God is at Studio 54, 254 West 54th Street, New York City, until Sept. 9. Book here.