"Children of a Lesser God" as an Oscar Award-winning movie was born in 1986. It starred William Hurt and Marlee Matlin. The movie was a hit, affording Ms. Matlin the Best Actress Academy Award. Adapted from a play written seven years earlier, the story is somewhat based on the relationship between deaf actress Phyllis Frelich and her husband Richard Steinberg. Tacoma Little Theatre opened "Children of a Lesser God" this weekend to large and appreciative crowds. It is the story of a speech therapist at a School for the Deaf and his relationship with his students (one in particular). South Sound theater-goers appreciate well-done drama and this show fills that bill. The two leads are superb and the themes are appropriate in a society where tension and intention clash. Rick Hornor directs the action in the Mark Medoff penned work. Mr. Hornor's charges are more than up to the task. "Children of a Lesser God," continues through Feb. 4. Friday and Saturday shows begin at 7:30 p.m, while Sunday matinees start at 2 p.m.
Some plays are renowned for outstanding acting. Others receive acclaim for music, dance, or set design. Only occasionally does a show enjoy critical applause because of its ability to connect with an underserved portion of society. When Tacoma Little Theater Managing Artistic Director Chris Serface chose "Children of a Lesser God," as a part of the theater's 99th season, he ventured into the oft-forgotten deaf world. The cast is 83% folks who are proficient in American Sign Language. The lead actress and one key supporting actor are deaf. The show is closed captioned on prominent screens left and right of the stage. This is a show that is further outside the box than many theaters are willing to go, and it is all to Tacoma Little Theatre's credit. The credit for this show being a high-quality production goes to Mr. Hornor and his fully-bought-in cast.
Michelle Mary Schaefer plays the Marlee Matlin role, Sarah Norman. Congenitally deaf, Ms. Norman has met, and confounded, speech therapist after speech therapist. From the show's first lines, she sees no reason why new instructor James Leeds will be anything but another foil. Sarah Norman isn't so much rebellious as she is determined to live her life on her terms. Ms. Schaefer brings a kind of sass to bear on the role, and hits the right notes with brilliant precision! Sarah Norman can't hear! But, she is in no way willing to be cast as "less-than!" If Mr. Leeds learns to accept that, well, it's ok with Sarah if he stays. However, she doubts that either outcome will be the case for long.This is Michelle Mary Schaefer's sixth outing in the role of Sarah Norman, and she wears the part as if it was written for her.
William Hurt played James Leeds in the movie with a harder edge than does Jeremy Lynch in this play. Lynch's overarching emotions are one of compassion and determination. Both frustrated by and drawn to Sarah he wants to be for her what she wants him to be...within the parameters of his own vision. Therein lies the tension that makes this show crackle. Mr. Lynch is every bit Ms. Schafer's acting equal, and the two make beautiful dramatic moments together. While he seemed to rush his lines in the very early moments, Mr. Lynch soon fell into the rhythm of his part and performed admirably in a dialog-heavy and challenging role.
The part of Sarah Norman's friend Orin Dennis is interpreted by Kai Winchester. Orin admires Sarah and carries a torch for her. The torch leads to a natural suspicion and jealousy of James Leeds. That said, Orin isn't above over-familiarization with the teacher. As Leeds becomes romantically-involved with Sarah, Orin takes to calling him "Jimmy." Kai Winchester brings a great deal of talent to the part. As Orin becomes increasingly frustrated, sweat pops out on Winchester's forehead. Well done!
As Leeds attempts to navigate both his job and a complicated affair with Sarah Norman, he must fend off the advances of yet another of his students. The role of Lydia is played very nicely by Melanie Gladstone. Coquettishly twirling her hair, Lydia increasingly competes with Sarah as the show unfolds. Ms. Gladstone imparts to the audience that Lydia arrives at this point in life having learned to manipulate others. Sure, she wants Leeds. She also wants his television and his beer. Any of the above? All of the above? Whatever... It is a fine line that Melanie Gladstone must walk and she deserves kudos.
Kerry Bringman brings a quality performance to every part he embodies. Mr. Bringman was brilliant in last year's "Second Samuel" on this same stage. In "Children of a Lesser God," Mr. Bringman brings both compassion and a frustration vibe to the role of Mr. Franklin. As the school administrator, Franklin observes with rising concern, Leeds' performance as an employee. Mr. Franklin could have canned Leeds, more than once, but he doesn't. Bringman's restraint in the role is an effective choice by Bringman, and Director Hornor.
The tension in this show is everywhere. Teacher and student pull and tug. Administrator and employee vie and joust. Kristen Moriarty, as Sarah's mother, and Madonna Hanna, as an investigator, blend nicely into the action. Both actresses are excellent in their portrayals of people who want to make things better. Ms. Moriarty, in particular, embodies the role of a mother at the end of her rope with grace and skill.
Blake York, the master of set design in the South Sound, performed another excellent feat in setting this show. The set is spare, almost Thornton Wilder's "Our Town" spare. But, the set leads the actors in the direction they need to go and doesn't distract the audience from the action.
In all, "Children of a Lesser God" is a dramatic masterpiece on this year's canvas of community theater. When award season rolls around this summer, expect to hear about this show again. Local lovers of community theater need to see this show! Tickets can be found on the Tacoma Little Theatre ticketing site, operated by Centerstage Ticketing. Arrive early and sample the excellent TLT concessions. Then settle in for a quality night of theater in the South Sound.