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Theater Beat

'Lesser God' still packs a punch today

September 25, 2009|Charlotte Stoudt; F. Kathleen Foley; David C. Nichols

Sure, it's earnest, occasionally clunky and a little too long. But as Deaf West's revival makes clear, "Children of a Lesser God" remains remarkably durable, both as a landmark drama of the deaf experience and a portrait of a tempestuous marriage between equals.

Mark Medoff's dramedy moved from the Mark Taper Forum to take Broadway by storm in 1980. The play's passionate cry for self-determination resonated at a moment when the struggles of many marginalized communities came to national consciousness. (The 1986 film softened the story; the original version has considerably more kick.)

This 30th-anniversary production is presented in American Sign Language, spoken English and supertitles, making it fully accessible to both hearing and deaf audiences. Played out on John Iacovelli's two-tiered minimalist set, the emphasis is on mouths and hands desperate to be understood.

James (Matthew Jaeger) teaches speech at a less-than-progressive school for the deaf. He meets his match in one of the school's maids, Sarah (Shoshannah Stern), too proud to learn to speak. They spar, then flirt, constantly taking each other's measure. Just getting through the menu on a dinner date requires more negotiation than a U.N. summit. James and Sarah's growing attraction is frowned upon by everyone from deaf students Orin (Brian M. Cole) and Lydia (Tami Lee Santimyer) to an older professor (Time Winters), who dryly informs James: "We don't fornicate with the students, we just screw them over." Yet love triumphs -- at first.

Medoff sets the play "in the mind of James Leeds" and isn't afraid to show his hero's flaws. The damaged James protects himself with humor that hides intense rage, and Jaeger convinces as a lost man who makes the mistake of finding himself through changing others. The deaf may require an interpreter, but he's the real codependent. But it's Stern's deeply felt performance that gives this production its real power. Quick-witted and supremely expressive, she channels the grief of a ferociously intelligent soul smothered by the hearing world's prejudices.

Director Jonathan Barlow Lee, who staged managed the original Broadway production, tracks the couple's shifting relationship with clarity. He is less successful at integrating the play's other characters, thinly drawn in comparison to the complicated leads.

In recent years, cyberspace has opened up infinite channels of communication. But "Children" makes a bold, imperfect case that our humanity lies within dialogue up close and very personal, regardless of the means of speech.

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Charlotte Stoudt --

"Children of a Lesser God," Deaf West Theatre, 5112 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood. 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends Oct. 18. $25. (866) 811-4111. Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes.

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Love and loss in 'Three Sisters'

Director Jack Stehlin doesn't strive for revisionism in Chekhov's "Three Sisters" at the Odyssey Theatre. However, although his staging is hardly ground-breaking, it is well-paced, satisfying and solid down to the ground.

Over the various acts, Kitty Rose's scenic design dwindles from cozy parlor to bare atelier to a stark and empty stage strewn with an autumnal fall of red leaves. It's a vivid visual metaphor for the play's progression of inexorable loss.

As is typical with Chekhov, the various characters have their heads in the clouds and their feet in fast-drying cement. Incapable of jumping off the tracks, they are content to discuss the velocity of the onrushing train.

Unhappily married to local schoolteacher Kulygin (Alexander Wells), tempestuous Masha (Susan Ziegler) falls in love with Vershinin (Tom Groenwald), a career military officer whose Utopian projections distract him from his own marital woes. When the sisters' beloved brother Andrey (Scott Sheldon) weds the coarsely manipulative Natalia (Cameron Meyer), the family fortunes plummet disastrously. Irina (Murielle Zuker), the youngest sister, may find salvation in marriage. Of course, it's the play's great irony that, when Irina finally takes decisive action, accepting one from among her suitors, tragedy ensues.

The cast is excellent, but certain performers stand out. As Olga, the oldest sister, Vanessa Waters brings delicate warmth to a role too often played as a pinched spinster. Groenwald's Vershinin is a larger-than-life enthusiast whose sheer affability is a triumph over sad circumstance. Thomas Kopache, as the boozy army doctor who dotes on the sisters, captures the exquisite pain of a would-be nihilist whose intractable humanity keeps surfacing. But it is Meyer, as the deliciously detestable Natalia, who steals the show in a performance of unparalleled repugnance.

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F. Kathleen Foley --

"Three Sisters," Odyssey, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. 8 p.m. Wednesdays, Sept. 30, Oct. 7 and 14. 7 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 8. Ends Nov. 8. $25-$30. (310) 477-2055, Ext. 2. Running time: 2 hours, 50 minutes.

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Facing Katrina's fierce winds

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