The haves versus the have-nots, the ins versus the outs, the majority versus the minority--can they ever really communicate? Should they? "Children of a Lesser God," which opened a return engagement to Washington at the Warner Theatre last night, uses the deaf as a metaphor to describe the conflict of connection between different cultures, but the play could just as easily be about black and white or rich and poor.
The aptness of playwright Mark Medoff's metaphor and the deftness with which it is handled is one reason this play is on the verge of becoming a contemporary classic. Without losing the focus of the love story between two human beings, or the specific issues of the deaf minority in dealing with the hearing majority, Medoff catches the dilemma of everyone who has wanted--and failed--to dissolve barriers between people.
This touring company, one of several currently in business, is as expert as the one that visited the National two seasons ago and manages to overcome the Warner's usual erratic amplification system. It is a small cast on a spare set, with a blank backdrop that stretches into infinity as the characters debate unanswerable questions. If the play is at times too glib, too obvious, it is a passing flaw that is submerged in the strong clear acting of this production, particularly by Jackie Kinner as the rebellious young deaf woman.
Kinner plays Sarah Norman, deaf since birth and institutionalized since age 5. She refuses to learn either lip reading or speech, feeling that such adaptation to the hearing world is denigrating, a kind of assimilation to which she will not submit. James Leeds, a new teacher at the school, recognizes that she is also afraid--afraid of sounding bizarre and of leaving the separate world of the school where she has safely closeted herself.
They fall in love, ignoring divisions that will inevitably come between them. Leeds is the all too recognizable, all-American do-gooder, a self-deprecating former Peace Corps volunteer, tied to the well-meaning need to help the "less fortunate," reminiscent of civil rights workers who were dedicated to the cause and then were hurt at being rebuffed by the advent of black power. How can he help her without reshaping her, without making her more like him? And how can she be reshaped without feeling she is being "squashed?" For a time, her desire to isolate herself in a housewifely cocoon meshes happily with his role as teacher. But love cannot conquer the fact that she does not want to learn to "speak" his language, and he cannot ever really enter her silent world and possess the secrets of the deaf.
Rico Peterson as Leeds fidgets too much, but handles his dual role as character and translator (Kinner's "lines" are all in sign language) with grace. Charles Jones as Orin, Sarah's hearing-impaired friend who organizes a lawsuit demanding that more deaf people be employed at the school, and Mimi Bensinger as the lawyer he hires are especially effective in their supporting roles.
"Childen of a Lesser God," by Mark Medoff, produced by Marvin A. Krauss and Irving Siders, directed by Gordon Davidson and Jonathan Lee, set by David Jenkins, costumes by Nancy Potts, lighting by Tharon Musser. With Rico Peterson, Jackie Kinner, Janice Cole, Charles Jones, Mimi Bensinger, Jo Farwell and Roger Serbagi.
At the Warner Theatre through Feb. 13.