Lesser God is quality dramaChildren of a Lesser God
Directed by Brian Dunkel.
Kresge Rehearsal Room A.
By Joanna Stone
Children of a Lesser God was one of the best student performances I have seen at MIT. It was a simple performance; it did not try to be more than it could and as a result, its harrowing story came through with clear transitions and intense emotions.
"In the beginning, there was silence, and out of that silence there couldcome only one thing -- speech." As James Leeds (Tom Westcott '93) uttered these words, an invisible curtain was raised and the story of Mr. Leeds, Sarah Norman (Christine Duffy), and the communication between them began to unfold.
James Leeds is a teacher at a school for deaf students. He teaches deaf people to read lips and to speak, so that they may "function in a hearing world." He meets up with Sarah, a student who comes with a reputation for stubbornness. She refuses to learn to speak or read lips. Leeds is determined to show up his superior, Mr. Franklin (Peter Floyd '87), by getting Sarah to speak. But along the way he loses sight of his original teaching mission and instead falls in love with Sarah.
Act One ends in blissful matrimony. However, when the audience returns from intermission, they find the happy marriage beginning to go sour. James is beginning to tire of being Sarah's interpreter, Orin Dennis (Brooks Mendell '93), Sarah's closest friend, is skeptical of the marriage and has no problem saying so. At the same time, Orin seeks Sarah's help in the fight he is launching against the school where they are both students. He has written to a lawyer and is seeking to sue the school on the grounds that it discriminates in its hiring practices by not hiring deaf persons as teachers.
James does not understand why Sarah refuses to learn how to speak or why this fight against the school is so important to her. The couple begins to grow apart. The lawyer, Edna Klein, appears on the scene, played by Michelle Perry '89. Perry radiates on the stage. As Edna Klein eagerly shows James the new sign language she has learned, the audience begins to wonder if a protagonist in even the happiest of marriages might not up and leave his wife for this woman. Not surprisingly, Sarah becomes jealous, and the couple grows even further apart.
The conflict eventually climaxes in an emotionally riveting confrontation, where James demands in a fit of rage that Sarah speak. She screams her only words of the play, then runs off stage. Silence follows the speech, and James is left alone on stage.
The acting in this production is stupendous. I did not see the movie version, so I had the added advantage of not expecting James Leeds to be William Hurt. However, I can hardly imagine that anyone could do the role more justice than Tom Westcott '93. Fluent in sign language, Westcott seemed to know Leeds and the world he lived in intimately. Westcott had a strong presence on stage and a magnetism all his own; he was a joy to watch.
It is therefore quite easy to see why every female character on stage seemed to find herself drawn to James. The most notable example of this is when one of his students, Lydia, falls in love with Leeds. Deborah Douglass '94 does a marvelous job portraying the smitten student. From her first lesson on pronouncing the vowels to her offer to move in after Sarah has moved out, her interactions with Westcott are not only humorous, but enthralling.
Both Mendell and Douglass gave completely convincing portrayals of their deaf characters. Mendell's performance as the concerned friend and "revolutionary" student was excellent. (And rumor has it that Douglass even had a certain theater arts director convinced she was actually deaf.) Credit for this must go in part to the production's voice coach, Kevin Iga '92. Many members of this production have a great familiarity with the deaf community, and this helped lend the performance its utter realism as a window into that world.
Which brings us to Sarah Norman, played by Christine Duffy. The program for Children of a Lesser God says that "Christine Duffy is a sophomore at Northeastern University. She has been deaf since birth. She is secretary of the Northeastern University Deaf Club." Duffy writes her own note: "I want to say thank you to Brian Dunkel for how much he helped me in drama. I learned a lot from him and I really appreciate it."
It is hard to believe that Duffy needed much help in drama. She was a natural on the stage, and her performance was nothing short of mesmerizing.
Westcott spoke the words that Duffy signed while her face lit up with the emotions behind those words. In this fashion, the relationship between the two characters came alive.
The stage setting was very simple, and this was to the production's credit. It was the actors' performances that made this play (though Dunkel deserves ample credit as director), and a lot of props and scenery were unnecessary. However, it was the use of "invisible" props that provided one of the only major flaws in the performance. At times the characters utilized "props" that did not appear real to the audience because they had not been fully imagined or realized by the actors. After serving herself at an imaginary salad bar, Sarah dropped her invisible plate onto the table in such a careless manner that audience members had to wonder why someone wasn't on the floor picking up the shattered pieces of the dish. Yet, this exceptional student production was fully capable of surviving a few pieces of invisible broken glass.