Monday, July 8, 2013
Theater review: Contemporary Theatre of Dallas’ revives wonderful Children of a Lesser God
It rightly received a standing ovation.
DALLAS Children of a Lesser God is a precious gem in the world of theater; it provides entertainment for patrons without whom the show could not go on, it has a plot that makes its audience think, and it provides an opportunity for actors to practice and demonstrate their art in a meaningful way. The cast and crew at Contemporary Theatre of Dallas have hit the mother lode with their stunning production of this meaningful, entertaining, and challenging play.
The play, which premiered in 1979, has had success in both theater and film. It won the Tony Award for Best Play in 1980 and deaf actress Marlee Matlin won an Oscar for her portrayal of Sarah in the 1986 film adaptation. The story follows Sarah Norman, a maid at a school for the deaf, and a speech coach at the school, James Leeds, as they meet, fall in love, and experience the difficulties of married life with the additional stresses of communication between him hearing and her refusing to learn how to audibly speak or read lips. This detailed and rare look into what it means to be deaf in a hearing world gives its audience a unique opportunity to consider privileges and the rights of individuals to communicate and experience life as they are.
Before I go into detail about the performances, I would like to highlight the really superb supporting features of the production. Because of the very strong personalities in the characters and strong performances by the actors, it would be easy for the infrastructure of the production itself to be overlooked in a review, but this crew put together the perfect complement to the cast and I want to be sure to recognize them.
First impressions as I walked into the theater, which is located inside an old church sanctuary, were favorable. Set design by Rodney Dobbs, was minimal, with platforms and screens behind the stage and to each side. The set was permanent, with plain gray boxes sitting in various locations that were moved throughout the show to depict various pieces of furniture. Lighting, designed by Jeff Stover, enhanced the set with soft lights behind the screens which change in color depending on the scene being depicted. I especially enjoyed the effect of tree branches behind the screens and lighting in hues of gold and blue to give the impression of a walk in the park next to a duck pond.
Sound design by Lowell Sargeant was not only appropriate, it added to the entire effect. Attention to detail is always appreciated and the inclusion of the fading whistle of a hearing aid was evidence that Sargeant took great care when creating the auditory components of this play.
Costume design by Christina Cook was period appropriate, with bell bottoms, peasant tops and silk shirts in abundance. All of the characters had frequent costume changes, with the exception of Leeds. He consistently wore khaki pants and a blue button-down shirt. After his marriage to Sarah, the addition of a brown sports coat elevated his status as a "settled" man and scholar.
Props by Jen Gilson-Gilliam were as simple as the set itself. Frequently, characters performed sans props, being appropriate given the minimalist philosophy of the production.
All of these components worked together as a fine backdrop for the superb actors assembled by Director Susan Sargeant. A small ensemble demands that the personalities and styles of the actors work well together and this company did just that.
The role of James Leeds is a demanding one, requiring the actor to be on stage for the entire show and having a range of emotions from comedic to silent. Ashley Wood, perfectly cast for this role, did an outstanding job. Whether he was trying to elicit a smile from Norman or was showing the pain of his struggles, Wood delivered an expert depiction of the role. His charming good looks and winsome, dimpled smile was leveraged at just the right times and was contrary to the tormented, red face of Leeds when marital struggles and communication blocks were most troublesome. Wood's mastery of a large amount of material before taking the stage – spoken word, sign language, and unspoken delivery – was impressive, and his ability to flow through the entire play with ease was testament to his experience and talent. The entire show could have been reduced to a one-man play, with Wood in continual monologue and it still would have been worth the time to see. However, adding Marianne Galloway as Sarah Norman into the fray expanded the depth of this play to deeper levels of meaning.
Galloway's Norman was angry and stubborn, with a fragility and naiveté that created an endearing side to an otherwise unapproachable personality. For the entire play, Galloway is required to perform without audible lines. Her entire communication is via sign language and facial/body language. Galloway was outstanding in delivering her character with an almost choreographed fluidity. The range of the character she portrays requires Galloway to be angry most of the time, stubborn all of the time, and continually wary of those who are attempting to be a part of her life. Galloway's performance was exactly how it needed to be. She was completely believable as the deaf former student-turned-housewife trying to exist in the hearing world.
The chemistry between Galloway and Wood were the glue that held the entire production together. Scenes where they were alone were energetic and fully charged. Their movements at times seemed almost synchronized. The push and pull of their conversations, existing only through sign language, were mesmerizing. Of special note were two particular scenes, one where Sarah is trying to explain to James what it is like to be in her silence and the other where James is trying to explain to Sarah what she is missing because she can't hear music. These two scenes showcased the ability of each actor to portray emotion, meaning, and communication through motion. It was a beautiful thing to experience from the audience. Bravo!
The supporting cast was outstanding in their own right. Matthew Laurence-Moore was especially convincing as Orin, a deaf student who is trying desperately to get the rights of the deaf at the school to be recognized. Orin is a deaf student who can read lips and is honing his speaking abilities because he sees these abilities as a way to affect change in the hearing world.
Amber Devlin delivered a touching performance as Mrs. Norman, the mother of Sarah. Her body language and facial expressions betrayed her stiff exterior and created a sense of the loss this mother feels in the absence of her daughter, who had been sent away to the school at the age of five.
Brittany Adelstein's portrayal of Lydia, another of the deaf students, was hilarious in the use of her timing and delivery. Mr. Franklin and Erin Klein, played by T.A. Taylor and Lorna Woodford respectively, came across as stereotypical hearing people, who misunderstand how to communicate and empathize with the deaf. Their performances offered well-placed comedic relief while revealing some of the obstacles the deaf students had to overcome.
Altogether, the cast, crew, and direction made for a wonderful revival of a lesser-known audience favorite. I found myself appreciative of the talent in the Dallas-Fort Worth theater community and in the philosophies of Contemporary Theatre of Dallas, which continues to choose art over ease. This production is the epitome of the art of theater. It is well worth seeing in that respect alone. Add the fact that it reveals an underrepresented minority in our world and makes us think about the struggles the deaf and hard of hearing have to overcome in our audible world, and it is a must see!
As the play ended, I happily and enthusiastically joined the audience in the standing ovation this production so rightly deserved.
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