Children of a Lesser God at Deaf Theatre West

When it first premiered in 1979, Mark Medoff’s, Children of a Lesser God impacted the deaf community in a way that brought their plight for equality to the collective conscious of the rest of the nation. It dealt honestly with the issues of marginality between the hearing and the non-hearing world. A lot has changed since that production premiered, but a lot hasn’t. Now, thirty years after its original Tony Award Winning production, Medoff’s play returns with a new interpretation that’s even more accessible to everyone than it was when it first premiered.

Deaf West Theatre’s 30th Anniversary production of Children of a Lesser God proves that a little nostalgia, a little innovation, and a lot of relevance, can still have a big impact today. Set in 1979 and follows the relationship of deaf student, Sarah Norman (Shoshannah Stern) and her speech teacher, James Leeds (Matthew Jaeger). At first, it is a teacher/student relationship in which reluctant Sarah refuses to learn to speak for fear of looking funny or weird, as she feels her friend Orin (Brian M. Cole) does. Eventually, the relationship becomes more intimate as the two begin to fall in love, despite Leeds’ boss, Mr. Franklin (Time Winters). Warned against the hurdles the couple will face by leaving the safe environment that the school for the deaf provides, Sarah and James struggle to be as normal as possible.

One of the most emotional scenes in the play takes place in Act Two, when Sarah, frustrated with everyone’s inability to communicate with her, bursts out in a primal rage of pain that pierces through the small theatre. It is the ultimate form of expression for a woman who’s been told all her life that she must assimilate into a “normal” society by learning to speak. Stern and Jaeger is a perfect match that slowly builds the tension of the play. Stern, with restraint and subtlety projects the storm that brews within her as she grapples between both worlds.

Jaeger’s charm and charisma serves as both comfort and frustration for Stern’s character, building the perfect counter-balance that pushes her towards her ultimate decision that closes the play. Lydia’s (Tami Lee Santimyer) naïve sexuality is both touching and heart breaking, while Mrs. Norman (Marilyn McIntyre), Sarah’s mother, accurately depict the frustrations of a mother who does not understand but wishes to reach out to her deaf daughter. Orin and Edna Klein (Rebecca Ann Johnson) propel the play’s more political statement, at times butting heads, while working together to bring awareness.

The apparent simplicity of the play is deceiving, when you consider the different themes that it attempts to address: love, religion, relationships, politics, culture, and family, gracefully rendered on stage by a fine and talented cast, a simple scenic design by John Iacovelli that comes to life by Leigh Allen’s lighting.

The deaf community has made great advancements towards functional equivalency. Plays such as this one reminds us that there is still a lot of work ahead of us. Thankfully, director Jonathan Barlow Lee hasn’t forgotten the message of the original production (he was stage manager for that show.) And it shows in this very powerful new production.

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About Obed Medina
Obed received his BA in Creative Writing from the University of California at Riverside. He has freelanced and volunteered at various theatre companies in Los Angeles since 2002. He launched his own workshop theatre company in 2008 and has produced six original one-act plays and one Off-Broadway hit. Currently, he is living in Ashland, Oregon working on his writing and founder of Collaborative Theatre Project.

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