It’s been thirty years since Mark Medoff’s Children Of A Lesser Gods opened theatergoers’ eyes to a new world, a silent world in which hand gestures take the place of the spoken word, and to a character who steadfastly refuses to venture out into what most would call “the real world.”  Technological breakthroughs since 1979, particularly the growth of the Internet and more recent developments like cell phone texting, have considerably reduced the schism between the hearing and deaf worlds.  Still, as Deaf West Theatre’s fine 30th Anniversary production of the Tony, Drama Desk, and Olivier Award-winning play makes clear, the deaf world and that of hearing people remain very different indeed.

Medoff’s 20something heroine Sarah Norman (Shoshannah Stern), deaf from birth, sees no reason to leave the safe cocoon provided by the Deaf School where she works as a maid. Unlike students Orin (Brian Cole) and Lydia (Tami Lee Santimyer), Sarah lacks the residual hearing that has allowed these two to learn to lip read and speak with greater ease than someone deaf from birth.  Misdiagnosed at a young age as learning disabled, Sarah the child determined from that point on never again to attempt to “pass” for hearing. When handsome new faculty member James Leeds (Matthew Jaeger) tries to break through Sarah’s resolve and convince her of the value of crossing over into mainstream culture, sparks fly between would-be-teacher and student, sparks which turn into sexual passion and then love.

Still, the question remains, can members of two such different worlds ever fully understand each other, or will the strain produced by the inability of either to bridge the gap separating them destroy the love that first brought them together?

Although it’s probably Children Of A Lesser God’s love story that has made it such an audience favorite over the past three decades, it is the political nature of Medoff’s script that gives it gravitas. Just as other oppressed minorities have found a voice to protest and correct societal inequalities, so has the deaf community stood up for their rights to be treated fairly and equally, and not to be shunted to society’s extremes, as was the case for so many years. Sarah and James’s story puts a personal face on this political struggle, and as we come to care for each of them, we come also to care about Sarah’s place in the world, as well as James’s place in Sarah’s world and hers in his.


Director Jonathan Barlow Lee stage managed the original L.A. production at the Mark Taper Forum in 1980.  (The play had debuted in workshop form in New Mexico a year earlier.)  The director knows the material well, and it shows in his nuanced work, and in the fine performances delivered by his cast, particularly in the stunning, tour-de-force work of Jaeger as James.

There are few roles which demand as much from a young actor as does the role Jaeger plays here. Since the play takes place inside James’ mind, his presence is central to every scene.  Since James must sign and speak the vast majority of his lines, the actor playing him must be either adept at ASL or a miraculously fast learner. Since all of Sarah’s signed lines are repeated by James, the actor in the role must learn two sets of lines, his own and Sarah’s.  Finally, whoever plays James must have leading man charisma and acting chops of the first order.  In all these aspects, Jaeger fills the bill, and then some, revealing every bit of James’s passion for teaching, the frustration he feels at being unable to penetrate Sarah’s protective armor, and the intensity of his love for her.

As Sarah, Stern brings a loveliness and likeability to the role that wins the audience to her side even when she is being her most obstinate, and she has great chemistry with Jaeger. I would have liked to see more of the anger, the rage, that other actresses have brought to Sarah, but Stern is great at capturing Sarah’s devilish sense of humor. In one aspect however, Stern remains herself and not the character she is embodying.  Since Sarah does not read lips and has never learned to speak, it is unlikely that she would be mouthing the words she is signing, yet on numerous occasions it is possible to read Stern’s lips. If Sarah moves her lips, it would be random movement, and unrelated to the pronunciation of the words she is signing.  Still, the primal scream which Sarah emit in the play’s climactic moments comes gut-wrenchingly from the soul of a very talented actress.

Two young, hard of hearing actors do noteworthy work in supporting roles.  Cole perfectly captures the activist fire of Orin, and Santimyer is an absolute delight as the flirtatious Lydia, her “I forgot to wear a bra” scene a particular delight. Marilyn McIntyre is impressive as Sarah’s mother, the actress’s work growing in depth as Mrs. Norman grows closer to Sarah in the second act.  Time Winters does nice work too as Mr. Franklin, James’s by-the-numbers boss. Finally, musical theater favorite Rebecca Ann Johnson gets many laughs as Sarah’s well-meaning lawyer who can’t seem to keep from putting her foot in her mouth where deaf people are concerned.

The play is staged with very few props, though this does at time create a certain awkwardness. For example, there are chairs, a sofa and a bed, but the Leeds’ card table is imaginary.  Characters answer a real telephone, but play cards with an invisible deck.  Why one, but not the other?

John Iacovelli’s simple but effective scenic design adheres nicely to Medoff’s instructions that the play’s set (“holding only a few benches and a blackboard”) allow characters to “enter and disappear easily.”  Leigh Allen’s excellent lighting design aids immensely in rapid time and space transitions.  Dianne K. Graebner’s costumes provide a nice fit for each character. Benjamin H. Kamine’s striking sound design ups the bass level to allow the audience to feel the vibrations that Sarah uses to “hear” music.  (Kamine also designed the projected supertitles used when hearing characters are not signing.)

Deaf West Theatre could not have made a better or more appropriate choice to begin its 2009-2010 season than Children Of A Lesser God, offering as always quality theater to the deaf, hard of hearing, and hearing communities, as well as opportunities for actors like Stern, Cole, and Santimyer to practice their craft. For these and many other reasons, this thirtieth anniversary production of Children Of A Lesser God is well worth seeing.

Deaf West Theatre, 5112 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood.

–Steven Stanley
September 24, 2009
                                                                                             Photos: Michael Lamont

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