In "Children of a Lesser God," which came to the Longacre last night, Mark Medoff is dealing with the world of the deaf and their special problems. His concern and understanding are claer, but he hasn't bothered to present their story in any but the most elementary dramatic terms. Instead, he has relied on our obvious sympathies and the novelty of his subject to carry the evening, with less than happy results.
We follow the courtship and marriage of a young speech therapist, James Leeds, and a stone-deaf young woman, Sarah Norman, who is his student in a home for the deaf. But our interest is drawn primarily by the fact that the actress playing Sarah is, indeed, incurably deaf; she is, in fact, a founder of the National Theater of the Deaf.
As a result, almost the entire play consists of sign language linked to speech, with Leeds repeating everything Sarah "says," or else responding in ways that clarify her talk. In some funny way, especially since Medoff has gagged it up to lighten the burden, this takes on the unsettling aspect of a vaudeville act.
In an effort to flesh out his story, Medoff introduces some talk of the threatened loss of Leeds' post when the headmaster learns of the affair, and also works in a student movement (two other young players have defective speech and hearing) to enlist Sarah as "spokeswoman" for a "deaf rights" stand. We learn, too, partly through her mother, something of Sarah's checkered past, including a hasty account by Sarah of a long succession of lovers who never so much as bought her a "Coke" and who were lined up, presumably at home, by her sister. But these and other references are sketchy.
Much more provocative is Sarah's impassioned declaration to her husband - they have a temporary breakup - that the "hearing world" can never hope to comprehend the world of the deaf, and - this is let pass quickly - that she would like to have children, deaf children. There is an affecting scene in which Leeds, a music lover, plays Bach and Handel recordings aware that this is an area totally inaccessible to Sarah, except for vibrations.
Phyllis Frelich, an experienced actress, plays Sarah resourcefully, with charm and, when the occasion arises, force. But it is John Rubinstein's strikingly alert and personable performance as the sunny, likable Leeds that holds the play together as much as possible. Leeds, it turns out, also had a difficult childhood, but is a compulsive jokester who has learned to look on the lighter side of life.
Lewis Merkin and Julianne Gold are able, in spite of speech handicaps, to lend credence to the roles of a militant student and a young woman with her eye on Leeds. Scotty Bloch presents a sympathetic portrait of the mother, and William Frankfather and Lucy Martin are passable as, respectively, the school head and a lawyer representing the student movement.
Gordon Davidson has staged the play fluidly in an angled setting occupied by a few I-beam benches on tracks that are moved about, rather awkwardly and ineffectually, to indicate the play's various changes of scene, a matter more successfully accomplished by the changing lighting and outdoor sounds.
Our hearts are with "Children of a Lesser God" all the way, but not our minds, which require deeper insights than Medoff is able to afford to stimulate them. Yet I would guess the play - Sarah, by the way, explains and demonstrates that deaf "talk" is much more rapid and versatile than ordinary speech - would be of immense interest to the hard-of-hearing, for whose less-afflicted members rented headsets are available.
A young married man is at home with his stereo. He has not played it for weeks, but now he switches it on and the room becomes awash with the sound of Bach. His face lights up with both joy and the recognition of that joy. His wife looks at his, trying to grope for his totally unfathomable emotions. She is totally deaf. To her music is a concept of the hearing persons.
This is simply one of the remarkable passages from Mark Medoff's seismographically sensitive play Children of a Lesser God, which opened last night at the Longacre Theater. In any season this play would be a major event, a play of great importance absorbing and interesting, full of love, understanding and passion. In our present dismal season, one almost expected to be met with celebrationary bands as you left the theater.
This is one of the most winning and thoughtful plays you are likely to encounter - a play that opens new concepts of the way of a man with a woman, and even new thoughts on the means and matter of human communication.
James, after three years in the Peace Corps, is a speech therapist in a school for the deaf and hard of hearing. He is totally fluent in sign language, of course, but his main function is to teach lip-reading and, even more important, to teach his pupils how to speak, a task of daunting complexity when a student is totally deaf.
Sarah is a 26-year-old speech dropout, and completely, irremedially deaf from birth. She works as a servant around the school, not wanting to return to her mother and the whole world of hearing-persons. Sarah, is, naturally, a challenge, and James wants to help her. In fact, he falls in love with her, and eventually they marry.
A happy ending? Not precisely - for between the worlds of sound and silence there is a chasm no one can jump. As Sarah points out: "Deafness is not the opposite of hearing. It is a silence full of sounds." But what sounds? Just as the blind from birth can only have an imaginative concept of vision constructed from the verbal images of others, so it is with the deaf. James's attempts to "describe" music are almost pitiful in their inadequacy.
The marriage starts to flounder. James is bright, flippant, a natural wit, hiding behind jokes to prevent being hurt. She is highly intelligent, dangerously afraid of being either patronized or pitied. She wants to believe that non-hearing is as good as hearing - not a disability, merely a perceptional difference.
She finds herself involved, with an old friend, in a court case to bring a discrimination suit against the school, which is unwilling to employ deaf or partially deaf therapists. And so the gulf between these two people, very much in love, widens.
Curiously, perhaps, it is an upbeat play - at times too upbeat, when the author, like his own hero, seems to take shelter against facts with a smoke barrage of wit.
Technically this wonderfully gripping play offers one enormous difficulty. One of the two leading actors doesn't talk, and consequently the hero has to provide a constant running commentary of subtitles for her sign language. So, in effect, he is virtually talking to himself throughout the play. The playwright, the director and the actors manage to convince you that this could happen. It is a magnificent feat.
Medoff, who will be remembered for his When You Comin' Back, Red Ryder? and The Wagner, gives his best work to date in this collage of a relationship. It is beautifully written, and the dramatic structure and texture is full of unobtrusive craftsmanship.
The production came from Gordon Davidson's famous theater in Los Angeles, the Mark Taper Forum, and Davidson has never been more brilliant, deft or accurate.
With positively vestigial settings - which were either too spartan or too ugly and probably both, but certainly useful - Davidson makes the play flow like a symphony. And the acting is at that fever point of naturalism where you are really no longer conscious of acting.
The cast is lovely - let me perhaps unfairly pick out Lewis Merkin and Julianne Gold as two partial-hearing students - and Phyllis Frelich as Sarah and John Rubinstein as James set the stage ablaze. The silent expressiveness of Miss Frelich, both funny and furious, is eloquence, as we say, beyond words.
Rubinstein plays a smart kid, for all his modest, radical image oddly disinterested in the world and its people, forced to explore his own potentiality for feeling and involvement.
This is a play that you will never forget - although I fear that its message of humanity's oneness yet its singularity is the most difficult to learn. See this joyous, witty, unsentimentally touching play, and start learning.
I had a rather complicated experience at the very beginning of the deeply engaging new play at the Longacre, Mark Medoff's Children of a Lesser God." As the curtain rose on a skeletal classroom in a speech clinic primarily designed to aid the deaf, therapist John Rubinstein stepped forward to offer a brief, sunny, dead-earnest introduction.
"In the beginning," he said, "was silence, and out of it could come only one thing - human speech." I promptly felt a stir of rebellion. Because Mr. Rubinstein is an extremely personable performer and because he was speaking with urgent candor, I took the remark at face value, as though the actor were speaking for the author and as though what he was saying was to be accepted as the evening's theme. With which I thoroughly disagreed. Human speech isn't the only thing, or even the first thing, that can emerge from silence by way of communication. Was I going to spend the evening arguing with it?
I might have saved myself that first bit of fretting. For, as the compelling narrative moved on into Mr. Rubinstein's professional and then emotional involvement with a woman born deaf, it gradually became apparent that this intensely idealistic man was, in fact, wrong. The intense battle of wills that eventually tears a romance and marriage apart stems from the fact that he has got the whole thing backwards.
But, for a long time, it's difficult to think of this therapist as being in error because playwright Medoff has given him so many amusing things to say and because actor Rubinstein rattles them off - in speech and in sign language simultaneously - with such brilliant exuberance. As he digs into his sessions with the appealing but stubbornly isolated Phyllis Frelich, he makes a game try at establishing contact by filling in his own background before he pries into hers. No, he wasn't brave enough to burn his draft card; he burned his Blue Cross card. Then off to the Peace Corps for three years ("I saved Ecuador.") He was, of course, an out-and-out disgrace to his father, who was not only a colonel in the Army during World War II but "got billing above the title." A cautious rebel, but an amiably self-mocking fellow.
Miss Frelich thaws, to a degree, soon enough. But first she wants some of her tenaciously held first principles honored. Though test scores indicate that she is college material, at 26 she is working as a maid in the dorm, lost among the slop buckets - because she does not speak. Her deafness is total, and irremediable. But can she speak? Or is she, for whatever traumatic reasons of her own, simply refusing to?
Certainly she is not interested in learning to produce sounds - or even to read lips. Never having heard the tonalities of the human voice, she rejects the notion of imitating an absence. She's not going to enter the world of "hearers" as an inferior; that would put her in the "retarded" category again, a category to which her chilly mother once mistakenly assigned her. There is some bitterness in her stance. Why should she bother to learn the language of talkers when talkers won't bother to learn hers? And there is some contentment in it. "Deafness isn't the opposite of hearing, it's a silence full of sounds."
It's also a silence full of other things - vibrations among them. Though she cannot hear melody, her entire body is perfectly capable of picking up rhythms, which is why - during a restaurant luncheon that becomes one of the venture's most charming passages - she is able to invite her therapist to dance.
The lunch itself poses certain problems. Unaccustomed to dining out, she must ask what a "piccata" is. By the time Mr. Rubinstein has transformed this into the speech of swiftly flowing fingers, it's turned into "cowbaby sauteed in butter," a proposition she finds somewhat off-putting. Once food has been served, he's upset by the sudden disappearance of all conversation. His pupil patiently explains to him that it is difficult to talk when your hands are busy.
Mr. Rubinstein is extraordinarily busy in two ways, for it is his task to convey to us vocally what both are saying in symbolic mime. He does this so swiftly, so subtly, so matter-of-factly that we scarcely notice it's happening; we seem to be reading the wind. Using no words at all, Miss Frelich - who is herself one of the founders of the National Theater of the Deaf - creates a character of challenging complexity: severely private, sharply outspoken, wry ("You're only funny in talk," she tells him, "not in silence"), sensually responsive, firmly determined to lead a life that is specifically hers.
The growing relationship between them is very real, the shift to the status of lovers is both poignantly and playfully arrived at (director Gordon Davidson has most imaginatively arranged for his hero to climb a tree to the girl's room), and the winning first act ends - despite warnings - in marriage.
The evening's second half changes course, as dramatically it must. And as the committed couple begins to run into difficulties, so does the dramatist. Mr. Medoff feels the need to invent half a dozen or more sources of friction, and some of them show strain. Mr. Rubinstein's complaint that he hasn't played Bach on his stereo since he married seems a shade gratuitous. (His wife has done nothing to prevent him); so does his intense insistence that she try to hear pitch as well as rhythm in a recording. I'm not certain I quite believe in his passionate desire to "rest his hands." Miss Frelich's sudden spasm of jealousy over her husband's entirely innocent relationship with a pretty lawyer is surely artificial, and the campaign of a fellow-member of the clinic to establish "equal rights for the deaf" introduces didactic underscoring that the story doesn't really need.
Yet whatever is irrelevant or somewhat contrived is overcome in our continued interest in the now-embattled pair. We remain eager to know what last barriers can be broken down, eager to know precisely why the defiant woman feels they'd have to live in another world all together before they could ever meet "face to face" (she would like to have children, but she wants deaf children). We are even more eager to know just where a skilled and sympathetic man has managed to go wrong.
The play ends in a tantalizing gesture, half-despair, half-promise. Putting its few stickier sequences aside, I say you'll find the pursuit engrossing, the two principals dazzlingly accomplished in their interplay.