It is a trauma to grow up physically handicapped in our society -- without eyesight, use of limbs or hearing. The demands of handling these disabilities can be overwhelming.

Many do overcome, however, displaying for the world inspiring stories of personal victory. And we applaud loudly for their ability to be "almost normal."

Mark Medoff's powerful "Children of a Lesser God," ably and elegantly performed by the Arlington Players, rails mercilessly at this vaguely condescending attitude, introducing us to a deaf woman who resists being yet another of those amazing handicapped tintypes we expect. In the process, the audience is forced to reexamine some of its own well-meaning behaviors.

The woman, Sarah Norman, isn't even close to being inspiring. Bristly and slightly bitchy, she hides herself away as a maid in a school for the deaf. She refuses to learn to speak or read lips, communicating only in sign language.

At first it's natural to fault her for not trying to get and go along. But why should she, really, be required to learn someone else's language? And, more important, why can't anybody learn hers?

One who does is teacher James Leeds, who falls in love with Sarah. The story, despite a subplot of a civil rights fight to get the deaf more substantive jobs at the school, is their love story, chronicling the trials they face to make their love work.

Making love work is hard enough without complications, but James and Sarah face the even more daunting problem of couples of different worlds. Whether it is racial, religious or physical, a wide gap must be bridged.

For example, because he can hear and she cannot, James must be Sarah's translator to the hearing world, a task that becomes wearisome quickly. And Sarah, by marrying and leaving the world of the deaf, loses her friends.

Carolyn Atwell is a furious Sarah; defiant and angry, she signs with fervor. She speaks no lines, save for one emotional moment, but manages to be the loudest player here. Atwell plays the part perfectly with a dangerous pride -- no pathetic deaf girl she.

In fact, with her striking looks and sexual energy, she is a heroine of great attraction. As her husband Leeds, Tom Brooks pulls equal weight. Brooks swaggers with all the arrogance of a teacher who is too good. Under his immense understanding and guidance, there is a need to control; under his brilliant intelligence, an inability to learn.

All supporting players are strong, too. As Orin, the angry young deaf man and best friend to Sarah, Terry Dactyl is manipulative without being inhuman. And Rhonda Hill's politically correct lawyer says scads about trying too hard to understand, as when her voice rises and her lips overenunciate around any deaf person.

Because this is a play about the deaf, all cast members must know signing. It is a task sometimes for the audience to follow it, but this group is accomplished at communicating. The entire play is also interpreted for the hearing impaired.

The set by David Kilpatrick is powerful in its simplicity -- a fragment of blackboard to denote a classroom, a box a tree. And effective lighting manages to create spaces and moods.

Having won Tonys on stage and Oscars when it was made into a much-acclaimed movie, "Children of a Lesser God" is worth seeing in any setting. It entertains, it teaches, it's relevant. Sarah lives in a "silence full of sound." So does this play, and it's well worth listening to.

The play continues at the Thomas Jefferson Community Theater at 125 S. Glebe Rd. in Arlington at 8 p.m. on Feb. 12, 13, 19 and 20. The play will also show at 2:30 p.m. Sunday. Call 739-2920 for more information.