Decades before “mansplaining” came along to fill a void in our national vocabulary, Mark Medoff’s Tony-winning play (and later movie) Children of a Lesser God provided both a case study and a denunciation of the infuriating male inclination to tell women just what to feel and how to say it.
Now, 38 years after the play’s New York debut, a Broadway revival directed by Kenny Leon at the Roundabout Theatre Company’s Studio 54 starring Joshua Jackson, Lauren Ridloff and Anthony Edwards repeats the lesson to an audience that might not need to be taught. Even with a White House inhabited by a man whose grotesque displays and insults include a resurfaced one aimed at Marlee Matlin, this play no longer has the power to surprise with what was once the unorthodox notion that the “disabled” can speak for themselves, thank you very much, an ability that just might entail rejecting the word “disabled.” Children of a Lesser God lives on now mostly as a well-constructed if somewhat dated relationship drama and as a showcase for its two primary, argument-siding characters, here played by Jackson and Ridloff.
Jackson, in a 180 from his taciturn, angry role as the left-behind husband of Showtime’s The Affair, plays James Leeds, the enthusiastic and well-meaning new teacher at a school for the deaf. Leeds, who is not deaf, is our narrator as he recalls his early days at the school (the setting is the 1970s) and, most significantly, falling in love with, and marrying, Sarah Norman (Ridloff, a former Miss Deaf America), a deaf, non-speaking woman who works as a janitor at the school where she’s lived since adolescence, when her exasperated mother abandoned her physically and emotionally.
As in the 1986 movie version, which won Marlee Matlin an Oscar, Sarah is far and away the story’s most arresting character, deaf since birth, misdiagnosed in childhood as “retarded” (the play’s casual use of the word, while era-appropriate, still takes some getting used to), and sexually abused in adolescence.
Sarah’s defining trait, at least initially, is her anger at the hearing world’s do-gooders who want to speak for her, literally and figuratively. That includes James, the man she loves but who persists in his insistence that Sarah would be better off learning to speak. She disagrees, in part out of pride and fear of failure, but more importantly – and this was perhaps the play’s true groundbreaking idea – out of the conviction that she is not disabled, that her silent world and her way of communicating is different, not inferior. She is not the child of a lesser god.
Her stance, hardly the revelation it once was, becomes clear at the play’s emotional peak, which won’t be spoiled here. It is entirely to the credit of Ridloff’s powerhouse performance that the moment still hits as hard as it does, considering we’ve likely been thinking from the beginning what she’s just now expressing.
And that means Jackson has the tough job of keeping his mansplainer from looking like a jerk from the start, a task he accomplishes with charm and humor. Required to sign his dialogue and interpret Sarah’s, Jackson’s performance can seem broad, pitched too big, but the exaggeration makes sense as James’ importance as translator and guide comes into focus.
Edwards, though, doesn’t have that burden, and his tyrannical, know-it-all school administrator can come across as an old-school sitcom boss determined to make sure his zany secretary stays in line. John McGinty, Kecia Lewis, Treshelle Edmond and Julee Cerda, in various supporting roles, keep things moving but can’t really do much beyond the plot devices they’re assigned.
Derek McLane’s attractive, minimalist set – chairs scattered here and there, a blackboard when necessary, tall tree trunks for outdoors – is bathed in a lovely blue light (by Mike Baldassari), evocative and fitting for a memory play that “takes place in the mind” of the teacher, as production notes say.
Hal Luftig and his team of producers, including Nyle DiMarco, the first deaf winner of America’s Next Top Model and Dancing With the Stars, has ensured that Children of a Lesser God is, as billed, the most accessible play in Broadway history, with supertitles – easy to read or easy to ignore as you see fit – and closed captioning available via an app called Galapro. Select performances include sign language interpreters. The play might not seem as bold as it once did, but its heart merits understanding. Maybe some mocking, insulting bully will read about it in a tweet.