STOCKBRIDGE — Lauren Ridloff's performance as Sarah Norman in Berkshire Theatre Group's "Children of a Lesser God" has propelled her from acting unknown to a critically acclaimed summer star in the Berkshires — and maybe beyond. The Eagle's Jeffrey Borak called her portrayal of a young deaf maid "a smashing, heart-rending acting debut"; The New York Times' Jesse Green said she is "a sensational find, her signing so explosive we barely need the translations"; and The Boston Globe's Don Aucoin deemed her "remarkable."
But perhaps nobody has more poignantly (and succinctly) described Ridloff's stage presence than the play's Tony Award-winning director Kenny Leon when, during a recent telephone interview, he said, "You can hear her hands speak."
Leon continued. "She can make you feel anything that Denzel Washington [whom Leon directed in the 2014 Tony Award-winning revival of "A Raisin in the Sun,"] can make you feel," he said.
"Lauren has less experience, but she's every bit as great an artist as [her co-star] Joshua [Jackson]," Leon said. Jackson plays James Leeds, a speech therapist who becomes romantically involved with Sarah.
"I'm not in any way a seasoned actor," Ridloff communicated in American Sign Language through interpreter Candace Broecker Penn before a show at the Fitzpatrick Main Stage one Thursday evening.
Though she notes that this isn't her first time on stage, this is the first time she has had this big a role. In fact, until this performance — aside from appearances in a 2017 film called "Wonderstruck" and a John Legend music video — one of Ridloff's primary roles has been as an educator, which is how she came to meet Leon in a Brooklyn coffee shop a few years ago.
In preparation for working on this Broadway-bound production, Leon asked a trusted friend, Chris Robinson, to recommend an American Sign Language teacher to instruct him. Robinson reached out to Ridloff to see if she was interested.
"I thought, 'OK, sure. This will be a great experience for me. It's a reason to get out of the house, take a little break,'" signed Ridloff, who had been caring for her newborn son, Wyatt.
Leon and Ridloff first met at the coffee shop near her home in Brooklyn. Upon entering the cafe, Leon was surprised when Ridloff started waving at him. He had expected a different type of woman — a white, 65-year-old, bespectacled, introverted type — to be teaching ASL, Leon said, admitting that this was his prejudice at the time. Ridloff doesn't come close to meeting that description. A former Miss Deaf America, Ridloff is darker skinned and younger, her brown eyes exposed, her body constantly conveying her emotions.
"I was like, 'Wow, who's that?'" Leon remembered thinking after seeing her for the first time.
The session began a once-a-week ritual that, over the course of a year, took them to different parts of New York City. Unlike many American Sign Language teachers, Ridloff didn't want to start with the alphabet and finger spelling, instead bringing Leon to, among other places, museums to learn different colors and shapes.
"I wanted it to be organic. I wanted him to think of ASL as a whole experience, not something that you teach in little bits and pieces," she signed.
"She opened my eyes to the deaf community," Leon said.
During this time, Leon would ask Ridloff about the script, which Mark Medoff had written more than three decades earlier. Leon wanted to update it and Ridloff would offer suggestions, such as adding cochlear implants. As their sessions came to a close, Leon asked her to be an American Sign Language consultant for the play, though he wasn't specific about what the role would entail, according to Ridloff.
When she subsequently received an email from a casting director inquiring about deaf talent, "I had no idea at that time [I was being asked] if I was interested in doing a reading," Ridloff signed.
At that time, she didn't even know what a "reading" meant, but once she understood it as actors reading material at a table, she felt more at ease.
"I thought, 'OK, I'll give that a try," Ridloff recalled.
The reading was held in New York City last fall. Among others, Jackson attended.
"He wasn't sure if he was going to commit to [the play]," Ridloff recalled. "He was just willing to do the reading."
Ridloff's concerns were twofold when she arrived. The first was that people would wrongly associate her with Sarah because they are both deaf and don't speak.
The second was that she would have to use her voice.
"That terrified me," she signed.
Yet, according to Leon, Ridloff's reading helped seal Jackson's involvement in the production.
At first, "I thought Sarah was angry and bitter, an ugly person," Ridloff signed. Over time, however, the actress' perspective of Sarah has shifted. "I've got so much respect for her, for who she is, for her flaws, for her power, for everything — her heart — I really get her, and I think we have a lot more in common than I originally thought. So now, the screaming part for me is not hard anymore," she signed.
Part of Ridloff's growth has come from not "faking it."
"One of the most challenging things for me to learn [was] how to present something and be authentic every time," she signed.
Leon felt Ridloff could reach this standard because she possesses two qualities that many highly trained actors never attain. "She has instinct and she has presence, and you can't teach that," Leon said.
Hearing Leon gush about Ridloff's innate talent leads to speculation about her future. Will she continue acting after the play closes, whenever and wherever that may be? [Its Berkshires run finishes Saturday night]. Will she model? Will she devote her time to being a stay-at-home mom to Wyatt, who is now three, and Levi, who is five? (The boys are deaf, as is their father and Ridloff's husband, Douglas.)
Leon is certain she'll thrive in any of these roles. But has Ridloff decided?
"I'm not thinking that far ahead," she signed, like a seasoned actress.