Regional Reviews: Phoenix
Children of a Lesser God
Also see Gil's recent review of Something's Afoot
Set in the late 1970s, the plot follows speech teacher James Leeds, who works at a deaf school where he meets Sarah, a maid in one of the school's dormitories. James encourages Sarah to learn to read lips and to speak as a way for her to better function in the hearing world outside the school, but she is too proud and, wishing to remain rooted in her community, insists on only using sign language. She also says that she likes her job as a maid as she gets to work alone and in silence. Also, as a reason for not learning how to read lips or speak, she says that she doesn't do things that she can't do well. As they bicker, argue, and constantly try to get the better of each other, they also find there is a growing attraction between them. Their budding romance is fraught with many highs and lows and is not favored by the staff of the school or James's speech therapy students, Orin and Lydia.
Medoff's play was a groundbreaker in how it focused on deaf characters and opened up its 1980 audience's eyes to seeing American Sign Language used as a very effective way to communicate. While sign language is much more commonplace today, and the dialogue is a bit heavy handed at times, the play's underlying themes that make us look at how we often communicate without really listening to or hearing one another still resonates today. However, as interesting as the play is and how fleshed out the main characters are, the supporting characters lack detail. There is also a sense of filler in the plot, as the students' legal fight comes basically out of nowhere and some of the scenes and dialogue between James and Sara are repetitive.
Fortunately, director Mark-Alan C. Clemente provides many moments of clarity throughout by ensuring his actors' portrayals provide nuance and depth to flesh out the characters as well as providing realism in the specific ticks in the constantly shifting relationship between Sarah and James. The production uses a combination of spoken dialogue, ASL, and a few projected supertitles, which makes it very accessible to both deaf and hearing audiences. Order Chaos partnered with students from the Phoenix Day School for the Deaf to provide a shadow cast that provides sign language for those characters who speak and the students are all quite effective.
Clemente and Jean-Paoul C. Clemente's minimalist set design uses several risers to depict the locations in the play. The decision to not include an elaborate set is a smart one, as the emphasis is on the speech and sign language as tools we use to communicate with each other. The sound design is also quite effective, with the use of sound effects and music to underscore key moments.
Delaney Smith is stunning as Sarah. She evokes an innate power as the young, spirited, deaf woman as soon as she first appears. Her portrayal is filled with expressive signing, joyful moments, passion, and even anger. The fact that her performance is so powerful and layered when she basically only communicates via sign language is a testament to Smith's excellent acting abilities and Clemente's rich direction. As James Leeds, Cameron Lucas Eggers has a lot of heavy lifting to do, since he has to deliver his lines, speak the ones that Sarah signs, and use ASL to communicate with Sarah and James' students. He does so in such a realistic way that when he speaks what Sarah is signing it comes across as if he's interpreting her ASL for the first time and not just reading the lines of dialogue in the script. He does an admirable job of fleshing out the anguish of this flawed character while also appropriately using humor as a shield to attempt to mask the hurt and pain from his past that's bubbling up underneath. Medoff depicts James as a lost soul who finds himself when he attempts to change Sarah, and both Eggers and Smith do good work showing us how the relationship this couple forms changes them both for the better.
In the supporting cast, Ace Charles delivers a passionate portrayal of Orin Dennis, the student who fights for deaf rights. Iliana Swartz is a hoot as Lydia, the student who has a crush on James and isn't afraid to hide her feelings. As Sarah's estranged mother, Mrs. Norman, Kandyce Hughes delivers a performance infused with empathy. Hughes also plays Edna Klein, a lawyer brought in to fight for the students who doesn't quite seem to understand that she's not exactly letting them speak for themselves. As Mr. Franklin, the supervising teacher at the school that has been accused of discriminating by not hiring non-hearing teachers, James Olsen is appropriately chummy but also eerily condescending.
What makes a person normal? The beauty in Medoff's play, which is beautifully depicted in Order Chaos's well cast production, is that it opens our eyes to our preconceived notions that, just because a deaf person may not be able to hear doesn't mean they aren't normal. Like Sarah, we almost all suffer the fear of being rejected or hurt and Children of a Lesser God also challenges our belief of what makes effective communication. If we are unwilling to accept or understand another person's preferred way to communicate that is different from ours, then it's our problem and not theirs for shutting them out. Our humanity lies in finding a common ground and a shared way to communicate so everyone can be heard.
Children of a Lesser God runs through September 24, 2023, at Order Chaos Theater at the Herberger Theater Center, 222 East Monroe Street, Phoenix AZ. For tickets and information, please visit www.herbergertheater.org.
Director: Mark-Alan C. Clemente