Saturday, January 20, 2018

Children of a Lesser God at TLT

Hear here.
by Michael Dresdner  

Michelle Mary Schaefer, Jeremy Lynch   All photos by Dennis K, Photography
Children of a Lesser God, which opened last night at Tacoma Little Theatre, is a powerful, emotionally moving, deeply thoughtful play. The story, which is as far from a bit of froth as it gets, unfolds on a bare, almost non-existent multi-level set virtually without props and with only minimal costuming. An exceptional cast under the direction of Rick Horner brought it vibrantly to life.

Well-larded with emotion and nuance, the play, via the lead actress, tries to get you to see an inverted paradigm; a world where your normal is not normal and what you may call a “disability” is merely a different, and possibly much richer communication framework.

James Leeds (Jeremy Lynch) is a newly hired teacher at a school for the deaf. His mission and passion is to teach deaf students how to read lips and speak aloud rather than sign. In his view, that opens the world to them, an idea supported by principal Franklin (Kerry Bringman) and either eagerly or reluctantly by students Orin (Kai Winchester) and Lydia (Melanie Gladstone). Lydia, enamored with Leeds, tries to entice him, and he in turn fends off her constant advances. 

Michelle Mary Schaefer, Kerry Bringman 

Meanwhile, Leeds quickly meets and falls in love with the school’s deaf janitor, Sarah Norman (Michelle Mary Schaefer), and wants to teach her as well, though she’s older and not a student. Sarah wants none of it, and is content to use sign language as her sole and preferred means of “verbal” communication. Leeds even tries to reach her through her mother (Kristen Moriarty) with whom Sarah has a barely existent, strained and broken relationship. Nevertheless, by the end of act one the two are married, but the head-butting is just getting started. 

Jeremy Lynch, Michelle Mary Schaefer

Throughout act two she tries to make him see why she is content in her silent world as is, while he tries to convince her to join his verbal one. Each tries to change the other’s perception of both what is and what should be. It’s all complicated when a lawyer (Madonna Hanna) enters the picture representing the rights and desires of Sarah and Orin to become teachers at a school that traditionally only hires hearing instructors.

L to R: Madonna Hanna, Michelle Mary Schaefer, Kai Winchester
The conceit is that this all takes place in the mind of James Leeds, and because we “hear” what he “hears,” everything that is signed is also repeated aloud in some form. Thus, it is all abundantly clear to the hearing. For those non-hearing patrons, two screens astride the stage offer up all the spoken words, though of course, not the signed ones.

The entire cast was admirable, but most of the heavy lifting is done by Lynch and Schaefer. He has the vast bulk of the spoken dialogue, covering both what he says and what she signs. For her part, Schaefer relies on body language, posture, facial expression, and a beautifully fluid use of her hands during signing to get her feelings across. While both were exceptional (my reviewing partner likened Lynch to the late John Ritter), I was most impressed by the range and delivery that Schaefer brought to her part.

As I said, the barely there set by Blake York (who, perhaps ironically, also does the sound design) is merely a set of levels with chairs that are moved as needed. Costumes by Michele Graves are simple, and props are non-existent to the point that even pieces of paper are mimed. Hair and makeup is by Jeffery Weaver, and effectively unobtrusive lighting is by Niclas Olson. All that combines to keep the focus where it should be – on the acting.

The playbill also lists a sign language master (Darren Frazier), though it is quite obvious that the cast was chosen in part for their ability to sign, and a deaf community liaison (Melanie Gladstone, who also plays the part of Lydia.)  

If you go, and you should, be prepared to stay focused. It requires the full attention of the audience, since there is so much, both verbal and non-verbal, unfolding all the time. Put in the effort and you’ll be rewarded with a moving love story that may challenge your very worldview.

Children of a Lesser God
Jan 19 to Feb 14, 2018
Tacoma Little Theatre

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