"Children of a Lesser God": Looking for the 'I" in "us"

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STOCKBRIDGE — A setting of quiet and mystery greets audiences entering Berkshire Theatre Group's Fitzpatrick Main Stage where Kenny Leon's passionate, vigorously played, insightful production of Mark Medoff's "Children of a Lesser God" opened over the weekend.

The stage — evocatively lit by Mike Baldassan and designed by Derek McLane — is awash in blue; open, marked by only a few structures — four chairs, a few backless benches, three door frames. Fog does not actually appear but there is, nonetheless, a palpable sense of mist. It is, as "Children of a Lesser God" unfolds over its roughly 2 hours, the mist of time, of memory.

"Children of a Lesser God" — the title is from a line in Alfred Lord Tennyson's "Idylls of the King" — is framed by the looking-back narrative of a speech therapist named James Leeds (an appealing and engaging Joshua Jackson), who unfolds a compelling love story involving himself and a deaf woman named Sarah Norman (a thoroughly enchanting and beguiling Lauren Ridloff in a smashing, heart-rending acting debut). They meet at a school for the deaf where James teaches and the 26-year-old Sarah, who's been at the school since age 5, now works as a maid in the dorm. Her deafness is caused by a physical condition in her ears that cannot be fixed surgically.

Sarah has made her own way in a world that has misunderstood her, treated her with condescension that passes as compassion. She refuses to learn how to lip-read; how to speak.

She is at first mistrustful of James; wary, but in his affable, sincere, witty way, James navigates his way to her heart, her mind. and, yes, her body ... in a wooing that is single-minded in its pursuit and joyous to watch. These are two smart people who are not above getting in their own way at times, especially James, whose best intentions can lead him to miscalculate, especially at a crucial moment late in the play.

As played by Jackson and Ridloff, James and Sarah are two headstrong individuals with two very different styles. Sarah doesn't shy away from stating what she wants even if she needs the help of the speaking or hearing impaired to make her case on her behalf. And thereby hangs the dramatic crux of "Children of a Lesser God."

"For all my life, I have been the creation of other people," Sarah writes in a speech she is preparing to give before a commission examining hiring practices at the school. What she wants, she says, "is to be joined to other people, but for all my life other people have spoken for me.

"Until you let me be an individual, an I, just as you are, you will never truly be able to come inside my silence and know me. And until you can do that, I will never let myself know you."

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James, who gets Sarah's need to be an I, maintains that to truly assert herself as herself, she needs to do the very thing she doesn't want — enter the world of the hearing and speaking by learning to speak.

"You will always have to be dependent on someone," James argues, "and you always will for the rest of your life until you learn to speak." And he is willing to risk everything toward that end.

With the exception of Treshelle Edmonds' excessive Lydia, an aggressively puerile adolescent at the school who has a big-time crush on James, the performances around Jackson and Ridloff are strong and authentic. John McGinty is persuasive Orin, a nearly life-long friend and schoolmate of Sarah named Orrin, who is hearing impaired and fired up over the fact that the school has no deaf or hearing impaired individuals on the faculty. Kecia Lewis is affecting as Sarah's estranged mother; and Stephen Spinella brings a deliciously edgy air of sarcasm, irony and point of view to the role of the school's administrator, Mr. Franklin.

But "Children of a Lesser God" belongs to James and Sarah. Leon's production is at its most compelling and incandescent when it is in the hands of either or both.

Jackson has the lion's share. He is on stage from beginning to end and handles the currents and eddies in James' emotional ride with uncommon skill. His James is irresistibly ingratiating — smart, funny, observant, capable of laughing at himself. He's a resourceful teacher; a man who wants nothing but the best for his students and who sees no reason why he and Sarah cannot build a lasting life together.

Ridloff's Sarah is as complex and layered as she is captivating — sexy, playful, proud, impudent, sassy, challenging, practiced at the art of protecting her fears and vulnerabilities. She is a deaf woman determined to beat hearing people at their own game, figuratively and literally. She takes defiant pleasure in upsetting people's assumptions and expectations. Watch the expression on her face as she navigates an almost impossible contract playing bridge with James as her her partner, against the duo of her mother and Mr. Franklin.

It should come as no surprise that in a play that is very much about connection and connecting, Sarah, in her speech for the commission, talks about what that means for her. The sign "to connect," she says. is a simple one "but it means so much more when it is moved between us like this. Now it means to be joined in a shared relationship, to be individual yet as one. A whole concept just like that."

What a concept.

Reach Jeffrey Borak at 413-496-6212


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