Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Barksdale Theatre: Children of a Lesser God

I wrote this response on March 12, but somehow forgot to post it. "Children of a Lesser God" runs at Barksdale's Willow Lawn theater through Sunday.

Last night I fell in love with Sarah Norman. As played by Erica Siegal, she was so sweet and prickly and honest, I knew exactly why James Leeds (as played by Brandon Nagel) married her--and it wasn't to teach, protect or save her. As she pulled her anguish out of her heart, I wanted to grasp Sarah's shoulders and say, "Look, he LOVES you!"

But love--like anger, humor, courage, or silence--can't solve everything alone, no matter what I or any of the characters think. Sarah, by whatever twist of personal history, understood herself first as a deaf person and second as a lovable person.

The play begins with about 15 minutes of almost ridiculously fast-paced development. Between Sarah's entrance to her speech teacher James Leeds' classroom and his post-curfew entrance through her bedroom window, I had no sense of how much time had gone by. Days? Months? Did I miss something?

I understand the need for broad scene-setting and character-establishing strokes. Medoff's script accomplishes a lot without overexplaining (although James does have an awful lot to say about himself to Sarah seemingly within their first two days of acquaintance). I wonder if some visual cues, such as changed colors in lighting or costume, might have demonstrated elapsed time and slowed the pace. More moments of action without words would have also helped: for a play that deals with silence (at least in a physical sense), it sure has a lot of sound.

All the action takes place on the same set, with minimal movement of a few basic pieces (benches shaped, interestingly, kind of like the crooked fingers of an "air quote" mark)--and this keeps things moving along, too.

The pace of the script and the performance does slow as the play enters its most substantive territory, dealing with James' and Sarah's struggles to bridge, merge or separate their four worlds: external, internal, non-hearing, hearing. (No wonder there's no single way to solve everything.)

The four principal actors (including Richard Gregory as Orin Dennis and Michelle Mary Schaefer as Lydia) are wonderful together; I got the sense they knew each other as characters, not just as actors. I especially liked Schaefer's Lydia, who reminded me of a person or two I've known--assertive and brash, but still a vulnerable young woman, trying to figure out if she's desirable, measuring her desirability against the standards of others. Are some of those standards imposed by the hearing world--for instance, talking? Is the desirability of talking a standard to be rejected, as Sarah does, as James tries to?

"Children of a Lesser God" deals with these questions, and many more, without resolving them--thank goodness. Life's just not that tidy.

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