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THEATER REVIEW

Giving our society a progress report

The somewhat-dated `Children of a Lesser God' shows how much more needs to be done on behalf of the deaf.

June 13, 2007|Philip Brandes | Special to The Times

Nearly 30 years after Mark Medoff's watershed "Children of a Lesser God" reshaped popular attitudes toward deafness, watching Rubicon Theatre's revival inevitably invites the question of how much progress we've made toward solving the issues it raised. The short answer is: enough to make the play feel dated in spots, but not enough to diminish its relevance.

It's a bittersweet victory for director Rod Lathim, whose staging continues the consciousness-raising mission he began in 1979 as the founder of Access Theatre, the former touring company that spawned the accessible theater movement. Using his signature integration of disabled and able-bodied performers, Lathim drives home with passion how much work is still needed to bridge the hearing and deaf worlds.

That gulf is movingly personalized in the blossoming romance between idealistic speech therapist James Leeds (Remi Sandri) and his deaf institutionalized patient, Sarah (TL Forsberg), who defies his attempts to teach her to speak. From initial antagonism, the relationship develops with humor, poignancy and visceral chemistry between these superbly cast leads.

The production is faithfully steeped in pre-Americans with Disabilities Act sensibilities of the 1970s, complete with ignorance, prejudices and awful clothes. It was a time when pairing "dumb" with "deaf" was a platitude with serious consequences: Having been misdiagnosed as retarded early on, the highly intelligent Sarah faces a future scrubbing toilets for a living when she and James meet.

Sandri, reprising his James from a previous teaming with Lathim, deftly handles the role's dual-communication requirements -- speaking and signing his own lines and translating the deaf characters' gestures into spoken dialogue with the kind of natural offhand repetition to himself that a hearing person might use to make sure he was following the conversation.

Forsberg's fluid, expressive signing makes a compelling case for Sarah's refusal to accept the superiority of speech, even if it might help her assimilate.

Her fellow patients -- deaf-rights crusader Orin (Garrett Zuercher) and hearing-impaired Kydia (Talia Dagan) face similar uphill battles to gain acceptance. The clinic administrator (Gary Lee Reed) regards the patients with cynical contempt, his own reliance on a hearing aid notwithstanding. Sarah's mother (Linda Livingston) keeps her emotional distance despite pangs of regret at their estrangement. Even Orin's well-intentioned attorney (Laurie Walters) is clueless when it comes to communicating with her client.

Although these extreme characterizations and occasional heavy-handed rhetoric may tempt us into complacency at our more enlightened attitudes, the mounting second-act conflicts between James and Sarah bare the depths of unexamined assumptions and biases that make real understanding so fragile and elusive.

--

`Children of a Lesser God'

Where: Rubicon Theatre, 1006 E. Main St., Ventura

When: 2 and 7 p.m. Wednesdays and Sundays, 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays

Ends: July 1

Price: $26 to $44

Contact: (805) 667-2900 or www.rubicontheatre.org

Running time: 2 hours,

35 minutes

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