Contemporary Theatre of Dallas presents a compelling, if often tortured and torturous, production of Mark Medoff’s 1980 Tony Award-winning issue romance Children of a Lesser God. Directed by WingSpan Theatre’s Producing Artistic Director Susan Sargeant, the show features powerful performances by its leads, Marianne Galloway (playing a temperamental, difficult non-speaking deaf woman) and Ashley Wood (playing an unconventional speech pathologist with raging boundary issues). Supported by an able ensemble, the leads manage to create a satisfying theater experience in spite of a muddled text that makes them fight for every moment.
Curious how some award winning plays don’t hold up that well over time. Considering the cultural context and salvation ideology of the late 70’s/ early 80’s time frame, it’s easy to see how Children of a Lesser God’s plot, motivation and characterization flaws got overlooked in deference to its sweeping, noble message. In context, Children of a Lesser God won the Tony for Best Play right after Bernard Pomerance’s The Elephant Man (a tragic drama based on the horrific life of a severely deformed 19th century man) and before Peter Schaeffer’s Amadeus in 1981 (a factually loose, fancifully dramatic humanizing of the eccentric 18th century composer Mozart). The challenges deafness presents, based here on real life events like the 1979 and 1981 winners’ material, fit right into the thematic flow of that era’s Tony winners. (Medoff wrote his play in 1977 as a star vehicle for a deaf actress friend, based on her relationship with her non-deaf husband.)
Act One: Hard to sit through, for all the wrong reasons. I vehemently don’t believe one should need to see the movie adaptation to understand a play, particularly when the play predates the film version. I’ve not seen the film. Act One of Children of a Lesser God sprawls along as a plodding, soap opera-ish mixed bag of confusing exposition, lacking clearly delineated conflict or motivation. It fails to define its characters before diving into interaction, leaving an innocent audience in limbo about the characters’ natures and motivations. Sargeant’s valiant cast reminded me of hamsters in cages, furiously spinning on treadmills, striving hard but advancing nowhere, due to the torpid script. Main character Sarah Norman’s age gets established with such passing mention that I spent half the act wondering about it, as her peers/ colleagues all seemed younger, inexplicably. Nobody seems horrified that she sleeps with a teacher, the school’s speech pathologist, even though the school fired his predecessor for the same transgression? Must be at least age 21? Sarah seems to have no job duties at the Deaf School where she “lives” and “has a job” (as mentioned briefly in the script), so I spent the other half of the act wondering why she was there. An over-aged, mentally challenged student? A prostitute on payroll? The school’s headmaster, also deaf, played with lurking menace by T. A. Taylor, puzzled me. Does he get some perverted thrill from Sarah’s sexual adventures, or does money change hands from them? If the character doesn’t approve of the sexual behavior (again mentioned in the script), why does he tolerate it and allow a “repeat”? Seems odd for a legitimate institution, a legitimate headmaster. It’s hard to determine the speech pathologist James Leed’s age at first as well (more passing mention), or his state of mind and exactly what he’s doing seducing/ being seduced by Sarah Norman. Sex predator? Why is he so out of control, willing to violate teacher/ student boundaries without any thought to propriety? Their sexual relationship/romance pops up out of the blue with nothing in either character’s behavior indicating its emergence or any justification. They don’t communicate except by fighting, acting childish and rude. Suddenly they are in love, getting married? Got to challenge first-rate actors like Galloway and Wood to perform this foggy miasma of a script with continuity, particularly with sign language as the main form of communication. Scenes with Sarah’s mother, played by the skilled Amber Devlin, confound worst of all. Talk about caricatured stereotype of estrangement! Overblown soap opera family secrets revealed have nothing on Mrs. Norman’s torchy dialogue. We get no clue about the source/ reason for mother/daughter estrangement; there it is, splat, an entire sub-plot of eye rolling and hand-wringing, just aching for organ chords to drone on behind its turgid dialogue. And then it evaporates like morning mist. What a dedicated team, along with game director Sargeant….
Act Two: I did contemplate fleeing at intermission. As curious as baffled, I decided to stay to see if Act Two could pull itself together. After all, the play did win a Tony, albeit 33 years ago. Because it now presents a married couple growing a relationship and dealing with the outside world, suddenly conflict and motivations exist and characters follow believable arcs. Mother stops speaking like a shady afternoon Telenova diva. And the talents and skills of Wood and Galloway get fine opportunity to shine. Perhaps Medoff wrote the polished, resonant Act Two first and tacked on the unwieldy Act One as afterthought? Both leads traverse difficult arcs, made even more challenging by the continuous use of sign language to reveal the plot to the audience. Galloway’s portrayal of Sarah’s climactic scream of pent-up, long repressed anguish seems to well up from dark recesses deep inside, tangible, visceral, utterly heartfelt. Wood conveys James Leeds’ genuine frustration with his wife’s self-imposed exile from the world and breaks through his character’s own protective defense mechanisms with poignant vulnerability. His is a truly difficult role to convey within the limited communication mode the script offers. Woods masters the role with outstanding skill and artistry. These two actors fit beautifully together on stage; both always give as honest performances as to be found anywhere in the region. I would not suggest that anyone skip a first act and arrive during intermission; but if you feel tempted to leave after Act One, please stay. Act Two more than makes up for Act One. Matthew Laurence-Moore, Brittany Adelstein and Lorna Woodford round out the cast, each demonstrating strong moments, as well as script-driven confusing ones, on stage.
Rodney Dobbs’ neutral-toned set design consisting of an expanse of several levels of platforms and a scattering of multi-use cubes allows the actors to focus on developing their relationships without distraction from a 1980’s style parade of realistic set and prop pieces lugged in and out with every scene change. Lights by Jeff Stover, costumes by Christina Cook and sound by Lowell Sargeant synchronize well to maintain the somber mood. ASL/Sign Language coaching by Kelli Williams-Mirus and Laurel Whitsett keeps the play’s challenging issues tangibly real and apparent, reinforcing the actors’ strong performances. I came away with a deeper understanding of what it might be like to be deaf or in relationship with a deaf person and a keener appreciation for the hearing I take for granted.
The play’s title comes from Alfred Lord Tennyson’s “Idylls of the King”:
O me! for why is all around us here
As if some lesser god had made the world,
But had not force to shape it as he would,
Till the High God behold it from beyond,
And enter it, and make it beautiful?
Children of A Lesser God runs through July 28.
Tickets: 214-828-0094 http://www.contemporarytheatreofdallas.com