Sarah Norman, played by the luminous and graceful Lauren Ridloff in the new Broadway revival of Mark Medoff’s 1979 play, Children of a Lesser God, is a young deaf woman seeking her own voice and way to engage the world. Changing deaf community politics in the four decades since the original production, plus the stilted mechanics of Kenny Leon’s direction, plus the use of supertitles for what is and is not translated using that tool, create a murky mess of a story that might once have resonated but which hasn’t aged well.
The theme of women coming into their own, on their own terms, is long-established. It has been well-reinforced by mainstream film, from women finding their footing after marriage (1974’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore; 1992’s This is My Life; 2007’s Waitress) to women finding new life after widowhood (1993’s The Piano). In Children of a Lesser God, Sarah, who was sent to live at a state school and later worked there, is adept at American Sign Language (ASL) and the old-fashioned skill of lip reading, and refuses to speak aloud. It’s a political choice, not belligerent resistance, as is her decision to speak through signing. Yet this is an odd play to revive without adaptations, either in the text or in the staging.
For one thing, in this memory play we’re told the story of Sarah’s empowerment through the perspective of her teacher, James (the charming hearing actor Joshua Jackson), with whom she falls in love. The role was originated by John Rubinstein, who learned how to sign just as Jackson has done. Walter Kerr, then the Sunday critic at The New York Times, insensitively called Rubinstein’s graceful ASL hand gestures “symbolic mime.” That mistake won’t be repeated here to describe Jackson’s superlative skills.
For another, while there is a plot turn near the end of the play involving a lawsuit against the school for more deaf teachers, the deepening politics of the deaf community since 1979 remain largely unaddressed.
But back to James. He speaks to hearing colleagues who lip-read and sign, and he signs with Sarah and acts as her interpreter to other characters who do not sign. He verbalizes Sarah’s signs even when they’re the only characters on stage. It’s an exhausting task for whoever plays him, but more, it’s confusing for those contemporary audience members who are accustomed to supertitles serving as literal translations. That is to say: supertitles can be tricky, and their purpose must be to clarify or comment. In Sarah Ruhl’s play The Clean House, for example, English subtitles appeared for the words of a Brazilian maid who was otherwise not understood by her non-Portuguese-speaking employers. In that case, the audience was in on the joke while the onstage characters were not.
Here, supertitles are redundant. Worse, they often obscure the language spoken on stage. Without supertitles, one character signing and verbalizing dialogue might seem necessity. Here, they provide what is tantamount to a third-layer version of the dialogue, and all it does is frustrate. Indeed, only Sarah’s signed dialogue is excluded from the supertitles, so you might see something that reads “Sarah: she signs.” No kidding. It’s as if Medoff and Leon are conspire to silence Sarah’s voice — when isn’t being silenced by James.
Putting these choices aside, the plot observes the various strategies of the characters for living in the hearing world. Sarah’s childhood friend Orin (fearsome and tenacious John McGinty), for example, seeks to change the school with that lawsuit, whereas Lydia (flirty and engaging Treshelle Edmond), who grew up in the school, largely wants to blend in.
Soon after James and Sarah marry, there is a bridge party at the home of James’ supervisor, Franklin (spare and twitchy Anthony Edwards), where we also meet Sarah’s formerly estranged mother (warm and layered Kecia Lewis). As the only deaf person in the foursome, Sarah not only functions, she wins — yet James continues to narrate her signed side of the dialogue. James reads that she feels “split down the middle, caught between two worlds.” Because she is.
It’s a metaphorical split that leads to their real separation at the end of the play. The lawsuit for more deaf teachers engenders a confrontation over who will speak for Sarah, who agrees to be a witness. James assumes he’ll continue to narrate her thoughts, but Sarah is now ready to speak for herself, to be an “I” in the world:
“Unless you let me be an individual, an ‘I’, just as you are, you will never truly be able to come inside my silence and know me. And until you do that, I will never let myself know you. Until that time, we cannot be joined. We cannot share a relationship.”
When James finally forces Sarah to speak, it is a final rift, a cri de coeur. Sarah declares that if there is a next stage for their relationship, they must “meet in another place,” not in “silence or in sound but somewhere else.” She confesses: “I don’t know where that is now.”
Good for her. Except that her choices went disrespected, and mansplained to her, for more than two hours. No part of me roots for them to get back together.