'As good as it gets': Gordon Davidson reminisces about 'Children of a Lesser God''
Deaf West Theatre has just extended its 30th anniversary production of Mark Medoff's Tony Award-winning play "Children of a Lesser God" through Nov. 1 (read Charlotte Stoudt's review here).
And guess who's going to Deaf West's NoHo theater to see the show on Saturday night? Gordon Davidson, former artistic director of Center Theatre Group and the man who directed the first staging of "Children of a Lesser God," at the Mark Taper Forum in 1979.
Of that long-ago production, which starred Phyllis Frelich, a deaf actress, and John Rubinstein, a hearing actor, then-Times theater critic Dan Sullivan wrote: "...it opens up a conversation between those in the community who can't hear and those who can hear, when we listen. There goes the Taper, putting people together again."
"Children of a Lesser God" went on to open on Broadway in 1980, again directed by Davidson, with Frelich and Rubinstein, who both netted Tony Awards for their performances. The story was re-imagined in the 1986 film starring Marlee Matlin and William Hurt. Matlin won a best actress Oscar for her performance.
There's more than a minor connection between the Broadway-bound 1979 Taper production and the 2009 Deaf West production: Jonathan Barlow Lee, who stage-managed the original Broadway production, directed the play for Deaf West in 2009.
"There were no rules and regulations except that this was probably the first play that ever dealt with hearing and deaf people," Davidson recalls. "We were mining new territory, and that was very exciting -- we had to make the rules. And it came with ... I don't want to use the word 'baggage,' but a lot of challenges.
"The deaf community at that time was very keen about not making any compromises on what it was to be deaf -- it was not about 'poor little deaf person,' and spelling things out," Davidson continued. "Sign language is a language just like French, German or Japanese. It has its own integrity, and they fight very hard for that, and I respected that, although it makes for a challenge. 'Children of a Lesser God' was as good as it gets in terms of discovery, self-discovery, and the working of artists trying to communicate in every sense of the word."
In 2002, during Davidson's tenure at CTG, the Mark Taper Forum presented Deaf West's production of "Big River," originally produced at the Deaf West Theatre in 2001. That musical blended speaking, signing and singing, sometimes with a hearing actor doing the speaking, or singing for a character portrayed by a deaf actor signing onstage. That show also went on to Broadway.
" 'Big River' was a big step because it attempted to mix deaf and hearing actors, so much so that you weren't quite sure who was deaf and who was not," Davidson said. He added that he believes a possible next step for Deaf West is to explore the worlds of people who are hard-of-hearing but not deaf; those who could once hear but have lost the ability, and those who regain the ability to hear through implants and other medical advances. "They straddle two worlds," he said.
Davidson, 76, is currently at work on an oral history and gathering notes for a memoir tracing the years from socially turbulent 1967, when the Taper opened with its first production, John Whiting's "The Devils," until Davidson stepped down from his post as CTG artistic director at the end of the 2004 season. He also leads educational theater trips to London.
No doubt "Children of a Lesser God" will turn up in at least one chapter of Davidson's book.
-- Diane Haithman
Photos: Phyllis Frelich and John Rubinstein in the Mark Taper Forum production of "Children of a Lesser God" in 1979. Credit: Jay Thompson. Shoshanna Stern and Matthew Jaeger in the Deaf West production. Credit: Michael Lamont.