Lauren Ridloff and Joshua Jackson in ‘Children of a Lesser God.’ (Photo: Matthew Murphy)
By April Stamm
A set made up of a field of doorways: entrances to something… to everything… to possibilities. Mark Medoff’s play, Children of a Lesser God, seems entirely apt for this framing. The original Broadway production broke ground; the 1986 film captured hearts and had something truthful and eye-opening to say. This season’s revival, by Roundabout Theatre Company at Broadway’s Studio 54, leaves those doorways vacant.
At its core Children of a Lesser God is the story of Sarah Norman (Lauren Ridloff, Broadway debut, film Wonderstruck) and James Leeds (Joshua Jackson, Broadway debut, television The Affair, Dawson’s Creek). James is a new speech teacher at a school for the deaf, supposedly young (although it doesn’t play that way in this production) and a little rebellious. Sarah is a former student and now maid at the school, set in her defiant ways, and dead set on not learning to speak or kowtowing to the world of the hearing.
The story is of their meeting, falling in love, marrying and crumbling. The story is also (though not in this case) about the nature of listening, hearing and being who you are while still seeing the world for what it is. Orbiting the two are a cast of literal “characters” including the oft times offensive and sometimes supposedly “funny” headmaster of the school (Anthony Edwards, Broadway debut, CSC A Month in the Country, television ER, Northern Exposure); the awkwardly clingy and childlike current student Lydia (Threshelle Edmond, Deaf West’s Spring Awakening, television Master of None); and Orin (John McGinty, Broadway debut, NY theater Veritas, film Wonderstruck), the leader of the vague rebellion that he and the sometimes reluctant/sometimes gung ho Sarah are planning.
On paper, Medoff’s script has momentum even if it is a bit untethered and hollow at times. The characters in his tale have something to say and they have relationships with each other worth watching. Both the hearing and non-hearing characters are frustrated with those in the world who don’t truly listen, they are confused and angry about not being heard, they struggle to be who they are and still find their place. These are concepts an audience can really feel with them if given a chance, perhaps now more than ever.
Unfortunately, the stilted direction (Kenny Leon, Holler if you Hear Me, A Raisin in The Sun) leaves little room for discovery of these authentic human emotions. Those beautiful doorways gracing the stage (Derek McLane, scenic design), ethereally lit by Mike Baldassari, are the extent of this production’s depth. Blocking is rote and forced with obvious staging. The dialog lies still on the page, with nothing in the structure or care of this production to make it soar.
In Leon’s defense, the cast seems not up for the task of this play. It’s true, many of them have had little stage experience, but that’s not an excuse. These characters have a lot to work with; they could be complicated and full. In this production, they are not. They lack footing. They lack a presence on the stage. Most of all, they lack chemistry, which is rough in a love story about passionate people wanting to do passionate things.
Ultimately, it’s a tremendously relevant time to restage this work. Perhaps the script needs to be reworked, fleshed out a bit. More importantly, however, to make this play work, it’s the characters and the relationships that need care, attention, bravery and pluck. Children of a Lesser God needs humanity more than anything, and it this production we miss it, desperately.
Children of a Lesser God
254 W 54th Street, NYC
Through September 9, 2018
April Stamm is a theater, food, and lifestyle journalist. She is a regular contributor to The Broadway Blog and EDGE Media Network and is a Chef Instructor at the International Culinary Center. Follow her on Instagram at @aprilstamm.