WHAT “Children of a Lesser God”
WHERE Studio 54, 254 W. 54 St.
INFO From $79; 212-239-6200, telecharge.com
BOTTOM LINE The impact is still there in Mark Medoff’s 1980 play.
You don’t always have to be able to hear to listen.
In the closing moments of the compelling revival of Mark Medoff’s “Children of a Lesser God” now at Studio 54, Lauren Ridloff delivers via sign language a breathtaking monologue that sears your soul. True, her co-star Joshua Jackson is interpreting, as he does through much of the play, but in all honesty her body language and facial expressions make her point far better than any of his words. We hear her.
The world is a much different place than it was when the 1980 Tony-winning play first brought much needed attention to the complicated issues facing the hearing-impaired. Technology has eased communication for many, and in fact the play is using a new GalaPro system that offers closed captioning via a cellphone app.
But the drama’s impact remains as it unfolds in the mind of James Leeds (Jackson), a speech therapist at a school for the deaf who looks back on his relationship with Sarah Norman (Ridloff), a former student who became a maid at the school, unable to face life away from the only home she’d ever known.
The play made stars of two actresses, the late Phyllis Frelich, who won the best actress Tony in 1980, and Marlee Matlin, who won an Oscar for the 1986 film. The same will surely hold true for Ridloff, a former Miss Deaf America who was first hired to familiarize the revival’s director, Kenny Leon, with the intricacies of sign language. She plays Sarah with a don’t-mess-with-me vengeance, careful to not let vulnerabilities sneak through as she refuses the school’s efforts to teach her to speak, explaining, “I don’t do things I can’t do well.”
Jackson (TV’s “The Affair” and “Dawson’s Creek”) is solid as James, speaking his own lines and interpreting for Sarah, while portraying his frustration at her unwillingness to even try to talk. Anthony Edwards (of “ER” fame) adds another voice to the mix, giving a studied portrayal of the head teacher who stirs the pot in misguided efforts to thwart the relationship.
I’ve read that Ridloff made the choice to communicate only through sign language, suggesting that the conflict at the heart of this play is still relevant to the deaf community. “My eyes are my ears; and my hands are my voice,” Sarah signs in that closing monologue. “My ability to communicate is as great as yours.” Let’s listen, then, to what Sarah — and Ridloff — have to say. And hear them.