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Review: Sound, or Silence? A Passionate Debate in ‘Children of a Lesser God’

Review: Sound, or Silence? A Passionate Debate in ‘Children of a Lesser God’


That would be fine if Sarah were as well armed to fight it as she is to fight the hegemony of the hearing. But Mr. Medoff allows neither Sarah nor James any insight into the way their behavior is conditioned by invented notions of gender, even once they marry. Sarah, otherwise a paragon of self-possession, frets over a runny quiche and coos over a blender. She proves herself as a wife by playing bridge. James sulks manfully, with Bach.

Mr. Leon’s color-conscious casting adds yet another level of contrast. (Ms. Ridloff is of mixed race; Mr. Jackson is white.) With no lines to address it, this extension of the theme of assumed privilege can only serve as a descant to the others, but sometimes that’s enough. When Sarah says she wants to have children — deaf children — and James blanches, the parallel to racism gives the moment a tantalizing frisson.

Unfortunately, little else does. When I saw this production’s tryout last summer at the Berkshire Theater Group, in Stockbridge, Mass., I admired the leading actors but hoped the dull staging and plodding pace might be enhanced for Broadway. I still admire the leading actors and am even awe-struck by Mr. Jackson, whose television work, including “The Affair,” did not prepare me for the virtuosity of his simultaneous rendering of the role in spoken English and A.S.L. while also interpreting for Ms. Ridloff.

But the uncharacteristically cheap-looking set by Derek McLane — just some tree trunks, chairs and portentous, empty door frames — looks even worse at Studio 54 and does nothing to help us contextualize the story. (Mr. Leon’s direction seems random.) Conversely, the choice of music contextualizes it too much, pinning down the late-70s so bluntly (“Silly Love Songs”? Really?) as to undercut its seriousness and timeliness.

Then too, as Walter Kerr wrote in The New York Times of the 1980 production, the play falters badly in its second act, ginning up all sorts of spurious conflict to fill time. Unlikely jealousies, threats of firing by the school administration (Anthony Edwards is wasted as the head teacher) and an employment discrimination lawsuit pursued by Orin (John McGinty) all come to nothing, or very little.

Eventually you realize that Mr. Medoff simply did not have the wherewithal to dramatize the fundamental conflict any further because James is his hero but Sarah is right. The play, written when it was, can’t quite support that — not because of its deaf politics, but because of its sexual politics. Like James, Mr. Medoff insists on speaking for Sarah without fully accepting her independence.

In Ms. Ridloff’s performance, though, she answers him, and us, in the most profound way possible: silence.



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