Broadway’s new revival of 1980 Tony winner Children of a Lesser God urges its audience to “#StartListening,” but struggles at times to relay a clear message of its own.
The story, written by Mark Medoff, follows speech therapist James Leeds (Joshua Jackson) at a school for the Deaf and the relationship he develops with a maid who works there, Sarah Norman (Lauren Ridloff). James urges Sarah to learn to speak in an effort to help her better acclimate to a hearing world, but she resists and will only use sign language, which keeps her rooted in the Deaf community. As a romance blossoms between them, and ultimately hits considerable stumbling blocks, the layers of communication in general come into question: Whether or not we hear each other, are we really listening?
Dawson’s Creek alum Jackson and newcomer Ridloff do the bulk of the heavy lifting in this production, with Jackson managing seemingly more dialogue than he had in a given season of his teen drama of yesteryear (and certainly of his current drama, Showtime’s The Affair). And his efforts pay off for the most part; his performance loosens as it goes and is especially noteworthy in the second act. Ridloff, however, is downright powerful from the moment she signs her first sentence. Her every movement communicates far beyond the words she’s signing. The former Miss Deaf America (who recently appeared in the movie Wonderstruck) was initially hired to tutor the show’s director, Kenny Leon, in sign language and, after more than a year, was offered the role herself — and it was a show-making choice. The same, unfortunately, can’t be said for ER‘s Anthony Edwards’ awkward Broadway debut as Leeds’ boss, Mr. Franklin.
A line in the show’s Playbill declares, “The play takes place in the mind of James Leeds,” but it also takes place in the late 1970s, which would’ve been a more apt warning for audiences unfamiliar with the original production or the Oscar-winning 1986 film starring Marlee Matlin and William Hurt. The presence of technology — a screen above the stage translates the James’ dialogue — and the stark, modern set may confuse some. The show’s sleek design, consisting of a series of multiuse tables, narrow white tree trunks, and doorless doorways are reminiscent of the simple staging of A Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, but utilized nowhere near as cleverly.
Music, too, plays a role here, as Sarah describes the vibrations and dances, while James attempts to explain Bach and Beethoven to her. Branford Marsalis composed some of the backing score for key moments, and theatergoers are welcomed and sent off with songs of love by Stevie Wonder.
Children of a Lesser God hopes theatergoers will go home and give some deeper thought to the way they communicate and the way they listen to — and really hear — one another, but the most lasting impression of the show is its two standout performances instead. B