Raleigh Little Theatre's Aug. 15-31 production of Children of a Lesser God, written by two-time Tony® Award winning playwright Mark Medoff and guest-directed for RLT by Sam Parker, is a beautiful, bittersweet drama that fearlessly explores the obstacles — and patronizing attitudes — that the deaf must overcome to lead a "normal life" in a hearing world. Its principal characters are former Peace Corps volunteer James Leeds (Adam Gsegner), a dedicated (and hearing) speech therapist at a school for the deaf, and Sarah Norman (Whitney Griffin Boreiko), a high-spirited dropout from the school with whom James falls deeply in love.
The fact that James, who is fluent in sign language, can hear and Sarah cannot does not prevent them from falling in love and marrying. But when Sarah becomes a strident activist for the rights of the deaf, a gulf begins to grow between the newlyweds — a chasm that only compassion and love can bridge.
Playwright Mark Medoff, who won a 1973 best-play Tony for When You Comin' Back, Red Ryder?, won his second best-play Tony in 1980 for Children of a Lesser God, whose Broadway production also earned the Drama Desk Award and the Outer Critics Circle Award for best play of the 1979-80 season.
The New York Times enthusiastically praised the original production. "Children of a Lesser God, in short and in sum, is the season's unexpected find," wrote The New York Times critic, "a play unlike any other and immensely likable in its self-assertion." Variety agreed: "Children of a Lesser God is an extraordinary play — illuminating, consistently interesting and moving."
The New Yorker saluted the show as "an authentic work of art," and the New York Post said: "In any season this play would be a major event, a play of great importance, absorbing and interesting, full of love, understanding and passion."
A long-time faculty member co-founder of the American Southwest Theatre Company at New Mexico State University at Las Cruces, Mark Medoff also co-wrote the screenplay (with Hesper Anderson) for the award-winning 1986 motion-picture version of Children of a Lesser God directed by Randa Haines and starring William Hurt and Marlee Matlin. Deaf since infancy, Matlin was then an unknown actress. She won a best-actress Oscar for her deeply moving performance as Sarah Norman.
"I first saw [the play Children of a Lesser God] when I was 18," recalls Sam Parker. "I was auditioning for a production of Spoon River Anthology at my undergrad program, when after my audition, the director called me down to the casting table and asked me if I would be interested in seeing Children of a Lesser God. I had never heard of the play at that time.
"He had season tickets to the Broadway series at a local theater that had touring companies come through," Parker explains, "and Children of a Lesser God was playing that weekend. I had typed on my acting resume that I was fluent in sign language. The director thought that I would be interested and asked if I would like his tickets, because he was unable to make the performance. I took the tickets of course and thanked him graciously. I was not cast in Spoon River Anthology but did take my mother, who is deaf, to see Children of a Lesser God."
Parker, who subsequently earned his MFA degree in theater from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, previously directed two productions for Raleigh Little Theatre: an American Sign Language/spoken English production of The Secret Garden this spring and a spoken English/ASL presentation of Mother Hicks last year.
Parker says, "What is most fascinating about this play is that Children of a Lesser God is written from the hearing perspective of the deaf in hearing culture. Deaf people cannot hear; therefore, they are less than perfect.
"This is illustrated," Parker says, "through the character of James Leeds, the teacher of the deaf. He strives to give the deaf language — spoken language. He justifies his approach with his desire to help or fix this 'deaf problem' and even goes so far as to refer to himself as God. (Is this the lesser God that is referred to in the title of the play?)"
Parker says, "Sarah resists his attempts to help her and rebels, demanding respect for who she is as she is with her deafness. This conflict begins the play."
He confesses, "The conflict between two worlds — hearing and deaf — is very close to me. I am a hearing child of deaf adults and often find myself trying to join or bridge my two worlds. I consider myself culturally deaf though I am hearing.
"Children of a Lesser God explores both worlds through Sarah and James," Parker claims. "Mark Medoff beautifully examines the oppression of the deaf and the idealistic attempts of the hearing to help or cure the deaf. Children of a Lesser God also has universal themes as well. This story could mirror almost any marriage where couples are polarized by different communication styles, conflicting goals, other people, and unresolved family issues."
Sam Parker says, "Children of a Lesser God begins with an intense heated argument signed between a deaf woman, Sarah Norman, and a hearing man, James Leeds. When Sarah exits, James turns and explains the history of this argument and relationship. We travel back through James' memory and the story unfolds.
"James is an idealistic speech teacher who wants to give the gift of speech to the deaf," Parker says. "When he starts a new job at the state residential school for the deaf, he begins teaching speech to Orin Dennis (John Alexander), a deaf student who considers himself culturally deaf, and Lydia (Emilie Edwards), who is deaf but considers herself culturally hard of hearing. Both have some residual hearing and have some ability to speak."
Parker says, "Lydia has quite an infatuation with James and tries to be the best student he has. Orin also likes James and strives to speak well.
"Sarah, formally a student at the school, has stayed after graduation and is working there now as a maid," says Parker. "After James meets the various students, he is directed to work with Sarah on her speech by the school administrator, Mr. Franklin (David Coulter). Upon meeting her, James is quite taken by Sarah's strong personality and pursues her as a love interest. However, Sarah is not so easily wooed."
Parker says, "After visiting Sarah's mother, Mrs. Norman (Linda Young), James comes away with more information about Sarah, both as a potential girlfriend as well as a speech student. James attempts to take her out to dinner at an Italian restaurant. He even climbs a tree outside Sarah's dorm to sneak into her room, [but] he is caught by Lydia, Orin, and Mr. Franklin. Eventually, James wins Sarah's heart and the two marry.
"The proud couple moves into faculty housing across the street from the main campus to start their married life," Parker notes. "Their first dinner party includes a bridge game to which they invite Mr. Franklin and Mrs. Norman. Sarah wins the game — much to everyone's surprise — and proves herself intelligent. Orin, Sarah's best friend, becomes jealous of the couple's relationship and feels that James has taken Sarah away from the deaf community."
Parker says, "In his fight for the rights of deaf people, Orin hires a lawyer, Edna Kline (Missy Dapper), to fight the state school for the deaf for its hiring practices and discrimination. He pressures Sarah to help with his cause. Sarah, now torn between the separate deaf and hearing worlds, decides to help Orin in his fight and as a result her marriage and relationship with James are affected."
Director Sam Parker says staging Children of a Lesser God presents two main challenges to him and his production team, which includes set designer Rick Young, lighting designer Roger Bridges, costume designer Sylvetta Harris, sound designer Haskell Fitz-Simons, American Sign Language consultant Ann Donnelly, company interpreters Jo Ann Miller-Kinsey and Karen Magoon, and performance interpreters Ann Meshaw Donnelly and Alexander B. McLinn.
"The show calls for minimal set, props, and costumes," Parker explains. "This creates a challenge for the actor to perform to the best of his ability — there is nothing else to see other than the depth of character and the brilliant dialogue. As a director, guiding the actor to find moments of truth and the depths of their character is challenging.
"The second challenge," Parker says, "is also connected with the actors. Many actors in this production are learning American Sign Language, a task not easily done. The actors have been working on learning another language in addition to keeping the moments real and working on their acting."
Director Sam Parker says, "Children of a Lesser God was the first show on Broadway performed by deaf actors. It was also the first show on Broadway to have sign-language interpreters on stage, interpreting parts of the production that were not signed in the show itself.
"This production at Raleigh Little Theatre will also have sign-language interpreters as part of the show," Parker says, "but we will be using interpreters who are deaf. This is a first for the Raleigh area. It will be exciting to see native users of American Sign Language actually interpret a show that deals with deaf culture."
Note: There will be post-show discussions with Greensboro actress Julianne Gold Brunson after the Aug. 23, 24, and 29 performances. Brunson played Lydia in the original Broadway production of Children of a Lesser God.
Raleigh Little Theatre presents Children of a Lesser God Friday-Saturday, Aug. 15-16, at 8 p.m.; Thursday-Saturday, Aug. 21-23 and 28-30, at 8 p.m.; and Sunday, Aug. 24 and 31, at 3 p.m. in RLT's Gaddy-Goodwin Teaching Theatre, 301 Pogue St., Raleigh, North Carolina. (Note 1: RLT is wheelchair accessible, and there will be sign-language interpretation and assistive-listening devices available at all performances. Note 2: RLT will provide audio description at the Aug. 24 matinee.) $13 ($11 students and seniors Aug. 24 and 31). 919/821-3111. http://www.raleighlittletheatre.org/child.htm [inactive 6/04].