"Children of a Lesser God" reaches out to new audience

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STOCKBRIDGE — Thirty-seven years after its New York debut, the time is right, says director Kenny Leon, for a Broadway revival of Mark Medoff's 1980 Tony Award-winning drama, "Children of a Lesser God," about the relationship between an unorthodox speech therapist at a school for the deaf and the headstrong, proud, passionate deaf woman with whom he falls in love. And as their relationship develops, they challenge each other.

"It's an important, timely piece about how we should embrace the realization that beauty is all around us and we have to be in it," Leon said during a recent interview in the parish hall at St. Helena's Church in Lenox where his Broadway-bound production was in the last days of rehearsals before the start of previews and the official opening Saturday in Berkshire Theatre Group's Fitzpatrick Main Stage in Stockbridge. The production is scheduled to run through July 22.

"Also," he said, "this play is made for the theater. It's made for live people in a theater to lean forward in their seats and engage with live actors on stage."

The former artistic director of Atlanta's Alliance Theatre for 11 years until 2001, Leon has directed at some of the most prestigious regional theaters around the country. He directed "The Wiz Live!" and "Hairspray Live!" for television and has been honored for his artistic, political, civic and humanitarian work. In 2002, he co-founded True Colors Theatre in Atlanta and has been its artistic director since.

He has two Tony Awards to his credit — one for his direction of a 2010 Broadway revival of August Wilson's "Fences"; one for his direction of a 2014 revival of Lorraine Hansberry's "A Raisin in the Sun." His other Broadway credits include "The Mountaintop," "Stick Fly," "Holler If You Hear Me" and two other August Wilson plays — "Radio Golf" and "Gem of the Ocean."

Leon's production — which began taking shape three years ago in a conversation between Leon and Broadway producer Hal Luftig — stars Joshua Jackson (of "The Affair" "Dawson's Creek" and "Fringe") as the speech therapist, James Leeds, and stage novice Lauren Ridloff, a former Miss Deaf America, as Sarah Norman, a janitor at the school.

Leon "found" Ridloff in Brooklyn when, at Luftig's suggestion, he contacted her to teach him American Sign Language in preparation for his work on the play. He said that as their work continued, he became convinced that, despite her lack of acting experience, she'd be a perfect Sarah. He convinced Luftig.

"As a director, I've always trusted my instincts, especially when it comes to casting," Leon said. "Working with Lauren, I just had that instinct that she'd be perfect."

Having directed Jackson off-Broadway in "Smart People," Leon was looking for another project for them. Again, Leon said, this seemed an ideal match.

The cast of seven is a mix of hearing, deaf and hearing-impaired actors for whom a crew of five interpreters is on hand.

Leon says he's tried to establish an atmosphere in rehearsals that encourages his actors to say what is in their heart if and when they feel offended by something someone has said or a way in which someone has behaved.

"If someone is offended they should say so," Leon said. "They should say what they feel."

Indeed, that's an issue that goes to the heart of "Children of a Lesser God," as hearing characters stumble over stereotypes and hearing impaired characters hold back.

For Kate Maguire, BTG's CEO and artistic director, "Children of a Lesser God" couldn't have come at a better time. She, too, has wanted to mount this play at her theater for several years. Leon and Luftig were looking for a summer theater at which they could put their show on its feet before moving on. Competition, Leon said, was fierce but Maguire's passion for the project, he says, won out. And, he adds, in his first visit to the Berkshires, he can't remember the last time he's had a collaborative experience as rewarding as this.

"Everybody, everything has come together so nicely," he said.

Leon says that as long as he's been a director, he's learned that it's never too late to learn something new. "Children of a Lesser God" is proving to be no exception.

"I'm learning that there are many more ways to tell a story than I've known in 30 years of directing," he said. "I've learned to look at the world through many more eyes."


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