On paper, Mark Medoff’s 1979 drama Children of a Lesser God might sound like an outworn issue play, tackling the way the hearing impaired were treated in the Jimmy Carter era by their loved ones as well as institutional systems. For better or worse, however, it’s still relevant, as revealed by its first Broadway revival (now at Studio 54), not only in regard to its portrayal of the deaf community, but also its more general depiction of people who challenge cultural norms and get encouraged to conform.
In the play, a deaf woman, Sarah, and a speech therapist, James, fall in love, get married, and break up. When they meet, he’s teaching the deaf to speak and read lips at the institute where she works and studies, and she refuses to do either. James has outmoded ideals, about helping those who are different to adapt to the mainstream, while Sarah just wants to be herself. And these conflicts, between the hearing and the non-hearing, divide Sarah and James culturally and thus push them apart romantically, ultimately proving irreconcilable. Almost 40 years after its publication, Children of a Lesser God remains an excellent drama, with knottily human characters navigating realistic relationships amid complicated circumstances.
According to the show’s Playbill, it all “takes place in the mind of James Leeds.” Derek McLane’s set is thus appropriately abstract: There are several door frames, some against the wall and others in the middle of the stage, as well as several vaguely arboreal poles. A change of lighting or the addition of a bench or a blackboard allows for a fluid transition between short scenes, swiftly transforming the stage’s almost blank space into a classroom, then an Italian restaurant, then a duck pond, then a character’s apartment, and so on. The actors use very few props, instead miming with their hands, which are already in overdrive from all the sign language.
Lauren Ridloff, as Sarah, signs balletically, employing her whole body to express herself through movement. Ridloff plays Sarah with a gruff, principled, and impenetrable intelligence that obscures a deeply buried warmth. The way she shatters emotionally during a climactic fight with James is devastating. (That Ridloff, who was born deaf, is a woman of color suggests an extra layer of difference and separation from her on-stage husband.)
But Children of a Lesser God belongs to Joshua Jackson, as James, thanks to his performance but also how the play is structured, as we move through his character’s memories. Jackson and Ridloff’s signing isn’t translated in supertitles—though the spoken dialogue is projected above the stage, for the benefit of audience members with auditory issues. It’s translated in real time, aloud, as in Jackson not only speaks all his own lines, but also those of his partner. The actor rarely stops talking in this epic part.
In his television work, Jackson has masterfully depicted the tension of navigating rocky relationships, from Pacey Witter’s adolescent affair with the mentally ill Andie McPhee in season two of Dawnson’s Creek to Cole Lockhart’s failing marriage to, and ultimate divorce from, Alison in The Affair, after the death of their son. As a performer, Jackson is sober and endearing, projecting goodness; the people he plays make mistakes but also overcome them by remaining decent, malleable, and open. You root for him even when he’s in the wrong. He’s a warm actor, given to playing characters with strong opinions who also recognize their own faults by listening to others. Those characters can ask forgiveness for various wrongdoings, from both Jackson’s scene partners and the audience, with just a tone of voice, evoking such sincerity that it’s hard to reject them. Jackson demonstrates an alluring self-awareness that’s as rare in actors as in real people.
Which is finally what makes the drama in Children of a Lesser God sting so much: the awareness by the lead characters that two people can love each other, can recognize their differences and try to overcome them, remaining candid and receptive, yet still fail. The cast, production team, and playwright leave the audience with the uncomfortable understanding that some issues are bigger and more complex than either person in a relationship can deal with, and not every marriage can be sustained by love alone.
Children of a Lesser God runs at Studio 54 through September 9.