By Alec Clayton
Published in the Weekly Volcano Jan. 25, 2018
|Sarah (Michelle Mary Schaefer) & James (Jeremy Lynch), photos courtesy Dennis K Photography|
Anyone who has a chance to see Children of a Lesser God at Tacoma Little Theatre and doesn’t is missing a golden opportunity.
James Leeds (Jeremy Lynch) teaches speech and lip reading to deaf students. His newest student who is also a maid at the school, Sarah Norman (Michelle Mary Schaefer) is a handful. She is sarcastic, rebellious, stubborn and flirtatious. She can speak as fast or faster with her hands as others can with their mouths, and she does not want to learn lip reading or speaking words out loud. In fact, she is disdainful of people who lip read. In other words, she presents a huge challenge to James, whose stubbornness matches her own.
The two of them express so much, so eloquently, with their facial expressions and gestures that language of any kind — sign or spoken — is hardly needed to grasp what they are thinking and feeling. And the audience sees immediately that they are attracted to each other. They soon fall in love.
A program note says the play takes place in the mind of James and that “Throughout the events, characters step from his memory for anything from a full scene to several lines.” These transitions are seamless and never jarring. It is a complex, multi-level story; yet it is easy to follow.
The playwright, Mark Medoff, expressly insists that the roles of Sarah, Orin Dennis (Kai Winchester) and Lydia (Melanie Gladstone) be played by deaf or hard-of-hearing actors if at all possible, and that most of the actors be fluent in American Sign Language. With the help of Tacoma’s deaf community and Seattle’s Deaf Spotlight theater of the deaf, TLT was able to meet these requirements.
Great strides are made to accommodate the deaf and hard-of-hearing in the audience. An ASL interpreter is employed for the opening curtain speech, and open captions are used on monitors on both wings of the stage. Plus, every word Sarah says in sign language is repeated verbally by James. You might think this would be tedious, but it is not. The dialogue flows smoothly, and the captions do not distract.
The relationships between Sarah and James and between them and the other characters, are stormy, intense, often laugh-out-loud funny, and ultimately tender and touching. Because of outstanding acting on the part of the entire cast — amazingly so on the part of Lynch and Schaefer — audience members are swept into their lives and feel invested. We hope for a successful resolution to their trials and conflicts, and without giving anything away, I can say that the end is satisfying.
The entire cast deserves recognition. In addition to those mentioned already, featured actors are Kerry Bringman as Mr. Franklin, the school administrator; Kristen Moriarty as Sarah’s mother; and Madonna Hanna as Edna Klein, a lawyer who represents Orin in a lawsuit against the school for which Sarah is asked to testify. Kudos to director Rick Hornor.
Children of a Lesser God is a two-act play that runs two and a half hours including a 15-minute intermission. Select performances will feature ASL interpreters; exact dates will be posted on the TLT website.
Children of a Lesser God, 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2:00 p.m. Sunday, through Feb. 4, $20-$24, pay what you can Feb. 1, Tacoma Little Theatre, 210 N “I” St., Tacoma, 253.272.2281, www.tacomalittletheatre.com.