Tacoma Little Theatre’s current production is the award-winning drama “Children of a Lesser God” written by Mark Medoff.
This is the stirring story of Sarah Norman, a young woman who is profoundly deaf; she was born deaf and there is no treatment of any kind which will ever change this. Her deafness is permanent and cannot ever be helped with amplification device of any type.
Sarah has lived at the State School for the Deaf since she was five years old; she is now 26 and still at the school. Sarah transitioned from student to maid when she came of age so she could earn a living and help take some of her financial burden from her mother.
James Leeds, a new speech teacher at the school is assigned by Mr. Franklin, the headmaster, to teach Sarah to speak. Of course, they constantly butt heads as Sarah, who communicates only with American Sign Language, refuses to learn to lip-read and has no desire to learn to speak or have anything to do with the hearing world.
Of course, as is often the case, opposites attract and Sarah and James fall in love – it is a rocky love affair, which is contemptuous to fellow hearing impaired student Orin Dennis, and isn’t helped by Lydia, a young, naïve, vixen-like deaf student who is enamored with James and jealous of his attention to Sarah.
Eventually, James and Sarah’s love overcomes the negative and they marry and move across the street from the school. Lydia still inserts herself in their lives and is pretty much ignored by the newlyweds.
However, Sarah becomes more rebellious against hearing people and James’ attempts to get her to speak. She is aided in her rebellion by Orin, who agrees that Sarah needs to be herself and convinces her to participate in his suit against the school for wrongful discrimination practices of not hiring deaf instructors; Orin has engages attorney Edna Klein to represent them in the suit.
Sarah is deaf. There is no way she will fit into the hearing world any more than a hearing person will fit into the deaf world.
Sarah tells this in her final speech saying that until people let her be herself; until they do that, they can never know who she is; until they can do that, they can never be connected nor can they share a relationship. The end of the play shows James and Sarah pledging to try to work things out, giving hope to their relationship.
It is extremely easy to see Director Rick Hornor’s feelings about “Children of a Lesser God” and the facet of our society the play represents. Hornor has taken his emotions about the characters and their tribulations and spread them on the stage in loving tenderness, as though they were his own.
Adhering to the playwright’s demands, Hornor cast his actors from the deaf or hard of hearing community. Hornor worked with members of the Deaf Community of Tacoma and Deaf Spotlight (The Theatre of the Deaf in Seattle) who were able to assure the play could be cast with local actors who meet Medoff’s demanded standards. The cast was or had to become fluent with ASL and those hearing members met the mark as well as the unhearing.
The crew fell into place with alacrity. As the play takes place in the mind of James Leeds, Blake R. York has designed a non-set; a series of dark platforms with just a Spartan number of chairs to indicate the depth of Leeds’ consciousness. Chairs are moved from one area to another as needed. Pantomime is used instead of actual props, keeping the accent on the actor rather than things.
Niclas Olson does the light design; Michele Graves makes certain the costumes don’t detract from the audience’s ability to focus on the actors’ hands when they speak. Darren Frazier is Sign Language Master and Nena Curley is Stage Manager.
The finished product is an amazing experience in which the audience is drawn into the mind of Leeds as the story unfolds.
For the hearing audience or the novice signer, there are two television monitors, juxtaposed on each side of the stage upon which the speeches are reproduced in their entirety – it’s like reading a script of the play. Sometime it can be disconcerting, but because of this device, no audience member ever loses the story.
Of the seven cast members, six make their TLT debut.
Madonna Hanna plays Edna Klein, the lawyer assisting the two disgruntled residents suing the school. Hanna is almost comical in Klein’s lack of knowledge of the deaf community. The actor makes her character an apologetic mentor who is unsure of her surroundings. The audience commiserates with the character.
Kristen Moriarty is Mrs. Norman, Sarah’s mother. Moriarty plays her role as a somewhat distant parent, almost ashamed of her daughter’s unwillingness to conform but happy to see her ability of finding a relationship.
Kerry Bringman is Mr. Franklin, the school’s headmaster. Bringman, the only long-time talent at TLT, plays his role as a jovial dolt, sloughing off Sarah’s refusal to learning to speak or anything which makes waves in his keeping his school running properly. Bringman also appears to have mastered signing for the role.
Melanie Gladstone is charming as the not-so-innocent Lydia. Gladstone gives her character a natural, child-like quality with a naughty streak; quite a nice performance.
Kai Winchester plays Orin Dennis. Winchester makes the fellow student a man with friendly concern for Sarah; but is it only friendly? The actor gives the possibility of something more than friendship may be lurking behind Orin’s prediction that Sarah and James’ marriage won’t work.
Michelle Mary Schaefer is Sarah Norman. This actor, who reports that she has done this part in six previous productions, is at home in the role. Schaefer brings her personal experiences to the role as well as the insights of past directors. She is an animated actor with such expressive signing skills that someone not knowing ASL can understand her stance on the play’s actions. Her silent actions speak volumes.
Jeremy Lynch is James Leeds, the obstinate teacher who insists Sarah will learn to speak; kudos to Lynch who turns in a tour de force performance in the role. Not only does Lynch vocalize his own role, he signs it at the same time. A giant leap onward, he also verbally translates all the lines that Sarah signs for the benefit of the hearing audience. Lynch does all these lines with the correct emotions demanded of each; the actor shows his frustrations with his lady-love with body language and inner rage.
“Children of a Lesser God” continues at Tacoma Little Theatre at 210 North I Street through February 4 at 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays with 2 p.m. matinees Sundays and a special Pay-What-You-Can performance Thursday February 1 at 7:30 p.m.
For more information or to make reservations call the theatre at (253) 272-2281 or go online to www.tacomalittletheatre.com.
As written in Honor’s program notes: “Children of a Lesser God” is a play of great importance, absorbing and interesting, full of love, understanding and passion.” It is of such an interest, Hornor received audition tapes from actors in New York, Texas and Portland, Oregon
Actors are so passionate about this play due to its message of bringing together the hearing and non-hearing cultures and furthering understanding of each to the other.
Think about this: a sighted person can emulate blindness by closing his eyes and finding his away in the dark; if he was not born blind, he can remember what thing looked like and can see that memory. However, you can’t close your ears. If you are born deaf, you have no memory of what sound sounds like, therefore cannot even imagine it. No matter how much a hearing person blocks out sound, there is always ambient sound – the very sound of your breathing screams in the ear silence. A hearing person can never know the alienation nor the emptiness of deafness.
Take your new understanding and make a new friend thanks to “Children of a Lesser God.”