The Rep’s SecondStage presented Mark Medoff’s Tony award-winning play to a full house during its opening weekend. “Children of a Lesser God” is the story of Sarah Norman, a strong-willed student at a deaf school, and James Leeds, the hope-filled instructor who wants to teach Sarah to speak and read lips. It is a multi-faceted tale. Love, the ties of allegiance and the difficulties inherent in communication are but a few of the prominent themes addressed throughout the play.
Sarah, played by Amelia Hensley, a senior at the Arkansas School for the Deaf, initially resists James — both romantically and as a student. She refuses to be changed, believing her silence and her sign language are proficient enough means of communication. She feels it is presumptive of Leeds — and by extension the hearing community as a whole — to want to make Sarah and her counterparts over in their speaking, hearing likeness. Although her resistance to James’ desire to teach her to speak persists, Sarah soon opens her heart to him.
As a Young Artist’s Production, the cast is comprised of actors between the ages of 16 and 23. The caliber of the performance was not hindered by the youthfulness of the actors, nor by the fact that for the hearing actors, this production was their first endeavor at signing. Robert McCain, playing James, gave a marathon of a performance; in scene after scene he moved seamlessly through a range of emotions, from impassioned pleading to tender embrace. In his dealings with Hensley, McCain was charming and convincing.
Hensley revealed Sarah entirely through body movements, never speaking a word. The very fact that all her signing had to be translated, or reiterated into verbal speech by whomever she was speaking to, highlighted the rift between the hearing and hearing-impaired worlds. Undoubtedly some of Sarah was lost in translation to hearing-only audience members, as her dialogue had to be filtered through others in the cast. However, Hensley performed from the gut — fleshing out an angry, strong woman without raising her voice or lobbing cutting words to get her point across. This is a central theme in the production, and of Sarah’s character in particular: Living within the silence does not necessarily represent a lack of something; it is part of who Sarah is, and adequate expression. As Sarah’s heart-wrenching breakdown in the last scene attests, when she gives James what he’s been insisting on since scene one by screeching out a high-pitched attempt at speech, being made over in the majority’s likeness, for Sarah at least, would be an unnatural act.
— Dolores Alfieri