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Theater review: 'Children of a Lesser God' at Deaf West Theatre

September 24, 2009 |  2:45 pm

CHILDREN OF LESSER GOD - 4

Sure, it’s earnest, occasionally clunky and a little too long. But as Deaf West’s revival makes clear, “Children of a Lesser God” remains remarkably durable, both as a landmark drama of the deaf experience and a portrait of a tempestuous marriage between equals.

Mark Medoff’s dramedy moved from the Mark Taper Forum to take Broadway by storm in 1980. The play’s passionate cry for self-determination resonated at a moment when the struggles of many marginalized communities came to national consciousness. (The 1986 film softened the story; the original version has considerably more kick.)

This 30th-anniversary production is presented in American Sign Language, spoken English and supertitles, making it fully accessible to both hearing and deaf audiences. Played out on John Iacovelli’s two-tiered minimalist set, the emphasis is on mouths and hands desperate to be understood.

James (Matthew Jaeger) teaches speech at a less-than-progressive school for the deaf. He meets his match in one of the school’s maids, Sarah (Shoshannah Stern), too proud to learn to speak. They spar, then flirt, constantly take each other’s measure. Just getting through the menu on a dinner date requires more negotiation than a U.N. summit. James and Sarah’s growing attraction is frowned upon by everyone from deaf students Orin (Brian M. Cole) and Lydia (Tami Lee Santimyer) to an older professor (Time Winters), who dryly informs James: “We don’t fornicate with the students, we just screw them over.” Yet love triumphs — at first.

Medoff sets the play “in the mind of James Leeds” and isn’t afraid to show his hero’s flaws. The damaged James protects himself with humor that hides intense rage, and Jaeger convinces as a lost man who makes the mistake of finding himself through changing others. The deaf may require an interpreter, but he’s the real codependent. But it’s Stern’s deeply felt performance that gives this production its real power. Quick-witted and supremely expressive, she channels the grief of a ferociously intelligent soul smothered by the hearing world’s prejudices.

Director Jonathan Barlow Lee, who staged managed the original Broadway production, tracks the couple’s shifting relationship with clarity. He is less successful at integrating the play’s other characters, thinly drawn in comparison to the complicated leads.

In recent years, cyberspace has opened up infinite channels of communication. But “Children” makes a bold, imperfect case that our humanity lies within dialogue up close and very personal, regardless of the means of speech.

-- Charlotte Stoudt

Children of a Lesser God,” Deaf West Theatre, 5112 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood. 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends Oct. 18. $25. (866) 811-4111. Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes.

Photo: Shoshannah Stern and Matthew Jaeger in "Children of a Lesser God." Credit: Michael Lamont

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