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Children of a Lesser God

By New York City
Alexandra Wailes and Jeffry Denman in Children of a Lesser God
(Photo © Theresa Squires)
Alexandra Wailes and Jeffry Denman
in Children of a Lesser God
(Photo © Theresa Squires)
The Bratters aren't the only troubled onstage newlyweds in town. Forty-four blocks south and several avenues east of the Cort Theater, Sarah Norman and James Leeds are battling far more serious issues than a hole in the skylight and wacky neighbors. They're trying to navigate barely charted territory, discovering whether or not a hearing person and a profoundly deaf person -- one who neither speaks nor reads lips -- can co-exist in the already rocky sea called marriage.

Mark Medoff's Children of a Lesser God played for nearly 900 performances on Broadway in the early 1980s, winning the Tony, Drama Desk, and Outer Critics Circle Awards before Hollywood transformed it into a major motion picture with William Hurt and Marlee Matlin (who won an Academy Award for her performance as Sarah). This first major Off-Broadway revival by the Keen Company fits squarely into the troupe's mission of producing so-called "sincere" plays; Medoff's intention to foster understanding of the plight of the deaf couldn't be clearer. Like most Keen's productions, this one is thoughtfully produced. But, as is equally true of many of the company's shows, it fails to make a convincing case that the piece needed another airing.

James (Jeffry Denman), a new speech teacher at a school for the deaf, is asked to take a crack at Sarah (Alexandria Wailes), a 26-year-old student who has lived at the school for more than two decades since being sent there by her frustrated mother (Lee Roy Rogers). Their first meeting doesn't go well: Sarah, who could redefine the word "angry," is resentful of James' attempts to get her to speak, especially since he's a hearing person. But it doesn't take long for antagonism to turn to like and then love. At the end of Act I, the couple take their wedding vows and prepare for a happy-ever-after ending. But while James claims to have come to terms with Sarah's reluctance to try to speak, this is not true, as becomes horribly evident in the still-shocking scene wherein he finally forces Sarah to make the attempt. This is a drastic turning point in their relationship.

The couple's struggle to find a middle ground would be sufficient to anchor the plot, but Medoff throws an awful lot of side issues into his overlong script. Sarah has way too many personal issues, involving everything from the father who left her to the high school boys who screwed her without even bothering to learn to say hello. Also carrying baggage is James, who's estranged from his father and whose nut-job mother committed suicide. Medoff's point may be that only these damaged souls can understand each other, but it all seems a bit ham-fisted. Moreover, a huge chunk of the second act is devoted to a lawsuit brought by Sarah's classmate Oren (Guthrie Nutter) against the school for discrimination in hiring deaf teachers, a subplot that proves to be uninvolving. Its only saving grace is the beautiful speech that Sarah writes to give in sign language (with Leeds translating) to the group that will hear the lawsuit; it eloquently puts into words how some deaf people feel about their condition.

Blake Lawrence's minimalist production, with Nathan Heverin's barely furnished, all-purpose set filling in for too many locations, places an extra burden on the actors to maintain our interest. Fortunately, the cast is up to the challenge. Even those in smaller roles score: Ian Blackman as Franklin, the school's boorish administrator; Makela Spielman as well-meaning attorney Edna Klein; and Tami Lee Santimyer as Lydia, a student in love with Leeds. Nutter (who, like Santimyer, is hearing-impaired) and Rogers (unrecognizable from her turn as Vivien Leigh in Orson's Shadow) also do fine work.

Wailes, last seen in New York in Big River, has a commanding stage presence but needs to show us a bit more of Sarah's interior pain earlier to make the character a tad more sympathetic. The big surprise of this production is Denman, who's primarily known to local audiences as a musical theater performer for his work in The Producers and the NYMF production of Yank. He tackles this incredibly challenging part -- he must "sign" almost continually while speaking for both himself and Sarah -- with great aplomb, displaying just the right measures of charm, sarcasm, hurt, and anger as the part requires. Like John Rubinstein, whose big Broadway success prior to the original production of Children of a Lesser God was Pippin, Denman gets to show his versatility in Medoff's play. And that's probably the best reason for this revival to be seen.


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