Children of a Lesser God, by Mark Medoff. Directed by Kenny Leon. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
Joshua Jackson, John McGinty, Lauren Ridloff, Julee Cerda; photo: Matthew Murphy
"I don't do things I don't do well."
Mark Medoff's play "Children of a Lesser God" made stars out of John Rubinstein and Phyllis Frelich. It is easy, seeing it again at the Berkshire Theatre Group's mainstage season opener, to see why. The roles are rich and the situation is unusual, a teacher of the hearing impaired, a voice teacher trained to give a voice in its clarity to his students, and a woman, deaf from birth, who refuses to attempt speech. As the play explores their professional association and their private emotional violation of the educational ethics they work under, the two principal characters are plunged into a dramatic situation that reeks of disaster on every level. In Medoff's play the only ruination is in the temporary lapse of faith these two have in one another. That is a lovely thing, even as it courts critical knocks.
The play, which opened on Broadway in 1980, was written for Frelich and was based on her own life. It ran for 887 performances and was later filmed with Marlee Matlin and William Hurt in the leads. It has not been seen much in major houses since then, but has never truly left the major repertory.
In my memory of that original production there was more tempest than tepid tea in the role of Sarah Norman and more ginger than grace in James Leeds, the two major roles. This time around Lauren Ridloff has some finer shading to her emotional swings than Frelich had in the role of her lifetime and Joshua Jackson has less of a grating nature as he moves closer to his student's level of resistance. In substance, from the outset, these two seem to have a predetermined destiny as a couple in work and in love. Rubinstein (this role won him a TONY) moved through the role with a distinct edginess. Frelich was non-stop abrasive and resistant to change.
Ridloff has a gentility from the beginning. Even when angry you can see her better nature struggling to be free and in control. She enhances the role with a certain finesse to her almost wordless performance. Her work is lovely in this part as she moves from basic "Annie" orphan with impaired hearing to a woman capable of challenging herself when necessary. Her over-time transitions are nicely played.
More one-note in his portrayal of Leeds, Joshua Jackson feels a bit cold-fish-like until his emotions overtake his professional chill. Near the end of the first act when honest devotion and love begin to control his choices he and his role go through a warm-up that is lovely to watch. In the second act every motivation is warm and challenging and even in a moment of pique and emotional outbursts you find yourself emotionally standing with him, your hand on his shoulder, encouraging to push more, push harder.
Completing the tapestry of life in this play is a troupe of marvelous actors. Stephen Spinella, an education department head who has his ways and knows his limitations, is just wonderful. His Mr. Franklin, playing a hand of Bridge with his former student, his present instructor and his student's mother, gives W. C. Fields a run for his money. He puts the cur back into curmudgeon. Julee Cerda as the civil rights lawyer Edna Klein adds a wonderful touch of befuddlement to the play.
As the young vamp Lydia, Treshelle Edmond does a very nice job. She is believable in a role that is truly unnecessary to the play, its only real point being to show what a loyal man Leeds is in the face of a family row and potential break-up. As Orin Dennis, a hearing-impaired man involved intensely with Sarah and James, John McGinty brings a rare honesty to his performance. I actually forgot he was an actor in a play and bought the reality of his work at times.
High and hot on my list of special performances is Kecia Lewis' work as Sarah Norman's mother. Scotty Bloch on Broadway was a cold fish whose unwanted daughter was truly an embarrassment. Without changing a word Lewis brings unanticipated depth to the role and her turnabout choices are truly lovely to behold and empathize with throughout the play.
I wasn't going to like the set designed by Derek McLane but it won me over fairly quickly.Dede M. Ayite's costumes are limited but having someone change clothes now and then would have really given this play a bit of continuity. Mike Baldassari's lighting was excellent, keeping this focused and clean and made the set viable. Alexandria Wales has done fine job directing the American Sign Language on stage.
Director Kenny Leon is a wonderful shepherd for this production. He has clearly worked hard to create more finely crafted characters. His use of the stage settings was excellent and his command of the stage itself with its complications was a treat. I look forward to seeing more of his work in the years to come. He is a most interesting talent, a welcome one this region.
A show I might ordinarily find hard to suggest has been turned into one I cannot resist sending people to see. I have to say that this is one of the best evenings at this theater that I have experienced in some time.
Joshua Jackson, Lauren Ridloff; photo: Matthew Murphy
Lauren Ridloff, Joshua Jackson; photo: Matthew Murphy
Children of a Lesser God plays on The Fitzpatrick Main Stage on BTG's Stockbridge Campus, 83 Main Street, Stockbridge, MA through July 22. For information and tickets call the box office at 413-997-4444 or go on line at www.berkshiretheatregroup.com.