The need for human connection is universal. How that connection is accomplished, however, is not.
Now playing at Berkshire Theatre Group (in Stockbridge, MA), Children of a Lesser God examines some of the various ways that people seek that connection. Originally written in 1979 by Mark Medoff (who won a Tony and Olivier Award upon its publication), the play beautifully showcases the relationship between a speech therapist and his deaf student.
Sarah Norman (Lauren Ridloff; Wonderstruck, former Miss Deaf America) was born deaf. Growing up, she thought that there was something wrong with her. As she got older, she realized that the world she lives in is not necessarily the same one that the other people around her inhabit. Now a grown 26-year-old woman, Sarah does not feel the need to succumb to the communicative demands of the hearing world. Instead, she embraces sign language as her primary method of interacting with others.
Enter James Leeds (Joshua Jackson; Dawson’s Creek, The Affair). Specializing in teaching deaf students how to speak out loud, James emphasizes tools such as lip reading to help his students communicate more freely with the hearing. His ultimate goal is to educate his students how to overcome their fears and trust themselves enough to use their voices as a comfortable form of conversation.
For James, taking on Sarah as a student presents an interesting challenge. How can he teach someone something that they not only don’t want, but strongly feel that they don’t need to learn? An unconventional teacher from the moment he’s introduced, James quickly goes from being frustrated with Sarah to admiring and ultimately falling in love with her.
As their connection continues to deepen, James is forced to call into question his firmly held notion that Sarah must adhere to the standards of the hearing world in order to succeed within it. How can he rightfully claim that she must change how she interacts with her hearing counterparts? How can he argue that she must conform in order to be heard? After all, the way she’s communicated her whole life has resulted in the two of them developing the most intimate relationship he’s ever had. Their incandescent love for and understanding of one another evolved naturally without Sarah ever having to audibly speak a single word.
The ensuing result is a fascinating dichotomy and exploration of human boundaries. Does James put pressure on Sarah to use her voice out of his love and caring for her? Or is it cruel for him to ask and expect her to relinquish her lifelong beliefs to appease him? And despite their passion, can Sarah hold onto her fierce independence while romantically involved with someone who will never fully understand her experience?
The role of Sarah has previously won actresses Phyllis Frelich a Tony Award and Marlee Matlin an Academy Award (for the 1986 film adaptation). Yet Ridloff manages to define her Sarah in simultaneously assertive, comical and heartwarming ways that make this standout performance unique and unforgettable. Her vulnerable interpretation of the character is nuanced and brilliant. Not a moment passes by that Ridloff is unable to relay every thought that Sarah has through her perfectly expressive and daring work. The window she provides into Sarah’s mind and soul allows for a rich and layered understanding of her character that is a real feat to accomplish for any actor in a singular setting.
Likewise, Jackson’s portrayal of James is a true tour-de-force. His command of sign language is spot-on, and watching James’ journey unfold while he audibly interprets Sarah’s side of each conversation for audience members unfamiliar with ASL, makes for a gripping performance that could easily rebrand the seasoned screen actor as a powerhouse stage presence. Producer Hal Luftig has already expressed interest in extending this production’s life after its initial Berkshires run is over. If a Broadway transfer is indeed in its future, don’t be surprised to find Jackson and Ridloff’s names on upcoming Tony ballots. Both actors give mesmerizing, fully committed and high caliber performances that demand to be seen.
Under the masterful direction of Tony winner Kenny Leon (A Raisin in the Sun, Hairspray Live, The Wiz! Live), this triumphant production of Children of a Lesser God is as poignant as it is marvelously executed. Even its minimal set provides a crucial sense of intimacy that allows the play to skillfully examine language and love in moving and thought-provoking ways. Now playing through July 22, Children of a Lesser God will deeply resonate with audience members long after the final curtain drops.