Regional Reviews: Connecticut & the Berkshires
Children of a Lesser God
When the play was first presented on Broadway in 1980, it won three Tony Awards and the current BTG production is rumored to be headed for New York sometime during the next year. Its exceptional quality speaks volumes, in whatever language, for the work.
James Leeds (Joshua Jackson) is a youthful, handsome speech therapist who, as an instructor at a school for the deaf, teaches various students. Sarah Norman (Lauren Ridloff) is a young woman who has endured physical trauma early in life, but she absolutely glows; such is her charming, infectious (in a positive sense) disposition. She is also a strong-minded young woman. It is easy to see why James finds this adorably enticing woman appealing. Ridloff's Sarah, a woman born deaf, seems to be dancing on air as she delivers her lines, parries with James, teases, and eventually sleeps with him. It seems logical that these two fall in love. That they do and, before the first act concludes, marry. All the while, in his therapeutic mode, James has been prodding Sarah to learn to speakand she has steadfastly resisted.
The early portion of the second act finds Sarah and Orin Dennis (John McGinty), an outspoken student at the school, standing up for deaf people. They argue with, for example, an administrator named Mr. Franklin, played by actor Stephen Spinella (a memorable Tony Award winner for his performance in the original Broadway production of Angels in America). The young people contend that the school should hire deaf employees. While the cause is of importance, this digression distracts and detracts from the principal story and theme of the play, which is the probability of lasting romance between Sarah and James. Thankfully, the complexity of that evolving relationship returns to the fore. The lead actors appear to be deeply invested in the characters and their portrayals are sensitive, committed ones. Thus, when the play takes a detour in another direction, one wishes for a return to the love story and its implications.
Joshua Jackson proves to be a solid, disciplined stage actor who has a feel for authenticity as he embodies James. The actor has, for the past few seasons, been featured on television's "The Affair" and, previously, "Dawson's Creek." While theatergoers (who also watch TV) might very well be familiar with Jackson, few know of Lauren Ridloff, who is precious, versatile, and really quite masterful as Sarah. Her recent credits? She was in the 2017 movie, Wonderstruck and in John Legend's music video, "Love Me Now." A woman who was Miss Deaf America, she teaches American Sign Language. A friend suggested to Leon that he ask her to help him learn that communication form. As he was studying with her, the director decided he wanted her to take the lead in this production. While her resume is not long on stage acting experience, her performance here belies that: she is emotive, persuasive and warm. Hers is a fresh and inviting presence.
The award-winning Kenny Leon (who has directed, among other plays, Broadway revivals of A Raisin in the Sun and Fences) is sure-handed as he facilitates actors. The complicated coming together and promise of Sarah and James as they attempt to make a journey accounts for heartfelt theater. The atmosphere of this piece shifts through Mike Baldassari's nuanced lighting rather than design of the stage. Derek McLane's set is perfectly simple and suitable.
At a time in our society when minorities and neglected groupings of people are struggling for recognition if not survival, Children of a Lesser God is an apt choice for Berkshire Theatre Group; Artistic Director/CEO Kate Maguire deserves a nod for bringing it to Stockbridge.
Children of a Lesser God continues on the Fitzpatrick Main Stage for Berkshire Theatre Festival in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, through July 22nd, 2017. For tickets, call (413) 997-4444 or visit www.berkshiretheatregroup.org.