STOCKBRIDGE — To be significant, even important, a play need not be great.
That useful reminder arrives courtesy of a Berkshire Theatre Group production of “Children of a Lesser God,’’ Mark Medoff’s flawed but still compelling 1979 drama about the turbulent relationship between an unconventional speech therapist and a strong-willed young deaf woman.
Directed by Kenny Leon, “Children of a Lesser God’’ stars Joshua Jackson, of “Dawson’s Creek’’ once upon a time and now of Showtime’s “The Affair,’’ along with someone you’ve probably never heard of, the remarkable Lauren Ridloff. The production is reportedly aiming for Broadway.
No one can accuse Jackson of coasting through an easy stage gig during his TV hiatus. Shorn of the beard he wears to play ultra-serious Cole Lockhart on “The Affair,’’ the actor is indefatigable in shouldering the multiple demands of portraying therapist James Leeds.
Jackson is onstage virtually every minute, because the play, which begins in the mid-1990s, unfolds in James’s mind as he flashes back to his days working at a state school for the deaf in the 1970s. It was there that he met and fell in love with Sarah Norman, a rebellious dropout working at the school as a maid. Sarah, portrayed by Ridloff, is so determined to live on her own terms that she defies James’s efforts to get her to try to speak, even after they are married.
The real revelation of this production is Ridloff, a former Miss Deaf America and sign-language model. Director Leon originally hired her as his ASL teacher while preparing for “Children of a Lesser God.’’ After noticing “how the world looked at her’’ when their lessons took place in public, he has said, he decided to cast Ridloff opposite Jackson.
It was an inspired move, because Ridloff has that indefinable-but-invaluable quality known as presence. Her Sarah is a silent storm. Luminous and expressive of face and fingers, Ridloff’s Sarah needs no spoken words to get across her emotions or her point of view. But when Ridloff does speak near the play’s end, in an outpouring by Sarah that amounts to a furious declaration of independence from all the expectations the hearing world has imposed on her, it is shattering.
Leon is less successful in addressing the shortcomings of Medoff’s play: a certain diffuseness of plot, an intermittent sense of drift in the narrative, and a decided thinness of characterization in the supporting roles. Those roles include Mr. Franklin, a haughty supervising teacher at the school, played by Stephen Spinella; Orin (John McGinty), a fierce champion of deaf rights who presses a discrimination complaint against the school and acts as Sarah’s goad and conscience; Lydia (Treshelle Edmond), an immature and over-eager student with a crush on James; Mrs. Norman, Sarah’s mother (Kecia Lewis); and attorney Edna Klein (Julee Cerda).
There’s a structural problem built into the play: Jackson’s James doesn’t just speak and sign his own dialogue; he also interprets and verbalizes what Ridloff’s Sarah is signing to him. So, for example, when Sarah signs the words “But you’re pitying me,’’ James says: “But I’m pitying you?’’ In terms of sheer memorization, this is an exceptional feat on Jackson’s part, but when repeated over and over, the effect is to drain momentum.
But if the play’s weaknesses are evident in Leon’s production, so too are the play’s considerable strengths. “Children of a Lesser God’’ was ahead of its time in the way it delved into the complexity of deaf culture while challenging the paternalistic assumptions of the hearing world.
Medoff’s drama foregrounded deaf characters and explored issues of communication, autonomy, and identity in the deaf community decades before plays like Nina Raine’s “Tribes’’ did so. Today, deaf performers can draw encouragement from the success of Deaf West Theatre, which produced Broadway revivals of “Big River’’ and “Spring Awakening,’’ but it was a notable step forward when Medoff insisted that the roles of deaf characters in “Children of a Lesser God’’ be played by deaf actors in any professional production (as they are at Berkshire Theatre Group).
“Children of a Lesser God’’ is best remembered today for the 1986 movie version, which starred William Hurt, then at the peak of his fame, and newcomer Marlee Matlin, who won an Oscar for her performance as Sarah. But before Hollywood entered the picture, Medoff’s drama was a hit on Broadway, where it premiered in 1980 after an earlier run in Los Angeles and went on to run for two years while notching a clean sweep of the top dramatic categories at the Tony Awards, including best play.
So “Children of a Lesser God’’ has a pretty secure place in Broadway history. It’ll be interesting to see if history repeats itself.
CHILDREN OF A LESSER GOD
Presented by Berkshire Theatre Group. At Fitzpatrick Main Stage, Stockbridge, through July 22. Tickets $65, 413-997-4444, www.berkshiretheatregroup.org
Don Aucoin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.