Mark Medoff’s Children of a Lesser God is a surprisingly cerebral play, less a sentimental romance than a sustained rumination about the place — and struggles — of the deaf in a hearing-dependent society. Centered on the courtship of an idealistic speech therapist and his strong-willed (and deeply troubled) deaf client, the play mostly avoids clichés in its moving investigation of the fundamentals of human communication. Director Jim Mammarella’s forceful vision makes itself apparent from the get-go: This particular memory play has been razed to its essentials, abetted by Ken Frazier’s minimalist design. To that end, the Vexler’s black-box space has been configured as a bare, nearly traverse stage, strewn with a Euclidean wet dream of stage props: black cubes, cones, and cylinders. Even the hand props are painted onyx — a second-act card game plays like poker with black holes. Mammarella thus ensures the hearing audience’s dependence on the aural by robbing us of the visual: for the space of two hours, we’re all ears.
That is, of course, the point, that the hearing world blithely assumes that everybody is all ears, and, more callously, assumes that everybody — including the deaf — wishes to be all tongues. The heart of the play is thus a fight over connection: whether there are any signs, aural or visual, that can truly bridge the gulf between the worlds of the hearing and the deaf. As the production disturbingly intimates, perhaps these two communities must remain forever at daggers — and phonemes — drawn.
A play of ideas needs strong thespians in order to anchor its flights of dialectic; otherwise, you’re watching Plato, not a play. Fortunately, the Vexler has landed Matthew Byron Cassi, who imbues the role of therapist James Leeds with just the right combination of smarts and naïveté. He’s always watchable, and carries this memory play on his capable shoulders. Likewise, Johanna Valenta, a former Miss Deaf Texas, successfully navigates the difficult part of the surly, abused Sarah Norman, a role that must elicit sympathy without transparency. Rightfully distrustful of the hearing world, Sarah surrounds herself with a silence as metaphorical as it is literal. Even at the play’s end, only Sarah really knows what’s inside her head.
The supporting cast glides in and out of James’ cerebrum like ghosts. For a play that works hard to dispel stereotypes of the deaf community, it’s strange, however, to have Sarah’s two deaf buddies (David Maloof and Alyson Miller) portrayed in such a curiously one-note fashion: the former a frothing socialist, the latter a lovesick pup. Yes, it’s a memory play, and perhaps we see here the distortion of memory’s mirrors, but I think such characterizations work against the larger argument of the piece. Amy Sloan injects a hint of sexual tension as a well-intended lawyer, while Laurie Fitzpatrick tackles the practically Dickensian role of an odious school administrator. Finally, Lindsey Van de Kirk rounds out the cast as Sarah’s melancholy mom.
The production’s second act works better than the first, mostly because the first act constitutes the wind-up punch to the second’s more sophisticated examination of the relationship between James and Sarah. Sexual conquest is, after all, trivial; it’s marriage that’s a real pip. As these lovebirds ease into a life of marital friction, we see now the occasional thoughtlessness behind James’ treatment of Sarah: James’ panegyric on the wonders of musical harmony — which Sarah can never hear — seems so powerfully cruel because it’s so offhandedly cruel. (Contrariwise, James refuses to lend any credence to Sarah’s assertions that she can sense the vibrations of music.) In the end, it’s little wonder that the play revolves around Sarah’s re-evaluation of the deaf community that she’s left behind: sure, they might be commies and nymphets, but at least they’re never unkind.
Though there are moments of real oomph in the second act — including a harrowing standoff between James and Sarah — this is not exactly a hellzapoppin’ production. For the most part, it’s thoughtful and elegiac rather than hurried. Mammarella takes seriously the oneiric aspects of the script, and I wonder if some Vexler patrons will wish for more drama, less dreaming. But as a commentary on deaf civil rights — and society’s baby steps in recognizing them — the piece remains timely; special kudos to the Vexler for providing an ASL interpreter for the entire San Antonio community. •
Children of a Lesser God
7:30pm Thu; 8pm Sat; 2:30pm Sun Nov 2 & 9
Through Nov 22
Sheldon Vexler Theater