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Life Sans Sound and Spoken Word: Children of A Lesser God on its 30th Anniversary at the Deaf West

Posted By Karen Young On September 21, 2009 @ 11:41 pm In Arts & Culture,Featured,spotlight,Theater | No Comments

BY AMY LYONSamylyons110

When Center Theatre Group founder Gordon Davidson helmed a revolutionary production of Mark Medoff’s “Children of a Lesser God” in 1979 at the Mark Taper Forum, audiences witnessed first-hand the staggeringly silent world of the deaf. Three decades later, Deaf West Theatre in North Hollywood is reviving the play in honor of its anniversary. The poignancy and power of the narrative remain undiminished.

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Shoshannah Stern and Matthew Jaeger star in the Deaf West Theatre's 30th Anniversary Production of "CHILDREN OF A LESSER GOD," written by Mark MEdoff and directed by Jonathan Barlow Lee and now playing at Deaf West Theatre in North Hollywood. Photo: Michael Lamont

Written for deaf actress Phyllis Frelich, who, incidentally, has worked on several Deaf West productions over the years, the play pairs the profoundly deaf Sarah Norman (Shoshannah Stern) with speech instructor James Leeds (Matthew Jaeger). The two bicker endlessly in early meetings, owing mostly to the fact that she’s content to communicate via sign language, while he insists she acquire more elevated communication tools, namely the power of  speech and the ability to read lips. Hands furiously fly as she passionately explains to him the myriad reasons why her mode of communication is just as good as his. As teacher and student spar, they also begin to fall in love. In a familiar tale of  love/hate passion, James is initially infuriated by Sarah’s stubbornness, eventually hopelessly attracted to it. After the two marry, the real test of wills begins.

Stern is luminous as Sarah, filling in all the voiceless gaps in her character’s story with her open book of a face and masterful sign language skills. When Sarah rages at James, we get to see what a voiceless screaming match looks like. Jaeger matches Stern in passion, taking on with great ease the tiring task of signing and speaking his lines. As we witness Leeds beg his wife to move closer to him by learning to speak, it becomes clear that Jaeger is feeling his character’s hopelessness and frustration to his core.

The play is made accessible to all audiences via an on-stage teleprompter that lets us read along. The majority of voiced lines are likewise signed, an improvement in accessibility over the 1979 production. The use of exceedingly loud music in key scenes is effective, as audiences feel the vibration of the songs, a method of music listening that Sarah employs.

Jonathan Barlow, who stage-managed the 1979 production at the Taper, directs this production with great care.

Those familiar with the 1986 film can’t possibly forget Marlee Matlin’s performance as Sarah. Matlin, who is chair of Deaf West’s current season, came to the production on opening night, her presence a nice reminder of the story’s rich history.

Through October 11. For tickets call (866) 811-4111. Deaf West Theatre is located at 5112 Lankershim Blvd. North Hollywood.  www.deafwest.org

Amy Lyons is a professional freelance journalist and theatre critic, with a degree in Theatre Arts and English from UMass, Boston. She started her journalism career at The Boston Globe and is a member of the Drama Critics Circle. Her articles, theatre reviews and photos regularly appear in numerous publications, including the Beverly Press, Valley Life Magazine, the Santa Monica Mirror and www.nohoartsdistrict.com

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