The sound of silence Tacoma Little Theater highlights deaf performer and American Sign Language with production of ‘Children of a Lesser God’

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(from left) Sarah (Michelle Mary Schaefer), James (Jeremy Lynch), Edna (Madonna Hanna) and Orin (Kai Winchester) discus their legal case in the fight for deaf rights, in Tacoma Little Theater’s production of “Children of a Lesser God,” a story of love and social struggle among members of the deaf community. Photo courtesy of Dennis K Photography

Tacoma Little Theater’s production of Mark Medoff’s “Children of a Lesser God,” an engaging and entertaining play, provides a community service by plunging its audience into the world of the hearing impaired. Set mainly in a school for the deaf (in 1979-80), this is the story of a love bond that develops between a deaf woman and a hearing man who become caught in the middle of the civil rights struggle of the disabled to rise above ignorance, prejudice and indifference and be given greater access to the running of the institutions that serve their community.

In its depiction of the civil rights struggle of a minority group against the vast indifference, if not hostility, of the majority, the play examines issues common to many such struggles. It thus has currency in the present climate, in which the gains of past civil rights struggles are again under threat.

The playwright insists that the roles of Sarah, Orin and Lydia be performed by deaf or hard of hearing actors if possible, and TLT was able to comply. The leading lady, Sarah, is played by Michelle Mary Schaefer, who has performed the role on four previous occasions. She is a screenwriter and actor who is involved with Deaf Spotlight, a Seattle-based arts organization that celebrates deaf culture and American Sign Language through creative works by and for deaf people in the Pacific Northwest. Schaefer uses body language to portray the sometimes sensual, sometimes belligerent Sarah. Silently she annunciates the expressive power of American Sign Language.

The other hearing impaired actors are Kai Winchester, who plays Orin, and Melanie Gladstone, who portrays the flirtatious Lydia and also is the production’s overall interpreter.

Jeremy Lynch has the leading male role of James Leeds, the liberal – if not radical – teacher at the school for the deaf who falls in love with and marries Sarah, his adult pupil. The entire story is presented as Leeds’ memories of how he and Sarah fell in love and got married, and the problems that they faced as their two worlds came into conflict. Lynch carries a heavy load with this performance. He must be an actor fluent in sign language so that he can both speak and sign his lines. He also functions as translator for the audience as he makes audible both sides of his many conversations with Sarah. This is the primary means by which the hearing part of the audience can track what Sarah is saying. (Monitors installed on the walls of the theater also give audience members help in catching everything. Hearing impaired audience members can see what the speaking actors are saying and hearing audience members can see what the signing actors are saying.) Lynch carries the load with ease.

Kerry Bringman, as Mr. Franklin, the somewhat good natured and well-meaning school master, is everything from a jovial card-playing colleague of Leeds, to a no-nonsense reactionary of the old guard ready to battle the demands of his upstart students. He must navigate turbulent waters in both the student/teacher love affair and a civil rights revolt in which students demand more hiring of deaf employees in the school.

Madonna Hanna plays Edna Klein, the suave, well-meaning-but-ignorant lawyer who carries the case of the deaf into the courts. Her initial attempts at communication with members of the deaf community are comical, but she gets her feet as she goes along.

Kristen Moriarty does an admirable job of playing Mrs. Norman, the exasperated mother of her strong-willed deaf daughter Sarah. She at first seems hard and uncaring, but it turns out that she’s gone the distance and made hard sacrifices that have been — seemingly — unappreciated.

Director Rick Horner did a great job in putting together what is essentially a bilingual production that flows seamlessly along.

The stage is set with nothing but black chairs and black steps and platforms. There are no props used; characters simply mime use of objects. The lack of settings or props serves to reinforce the fact that the play is supposed to be a portrayal of Leeds’ memories. But the lack of visual apparatus also helps illustrate the silence of the world of the deaf by presenting a visual equivalent of deafness. This lack of color and visual stimulation, however, also puts a heavy burden on the actors to energize the show, lest it become monotonous to the senses. Fortunately, the actors prove themselves up to the challenge.

In the love story, I detect something of both Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Little Mermaid” and Henrik Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House.” Sarah’s move out of the deaf community and into the world of hearing people is something akin to the little mermaid’s move out of the sea and to the world of dry land to be with the prince with whom she has fallen in love. Her ultimate insistence, however, that deafness, far from being a handicap, is something that has given her an expressive language and a rich existence, gives Sarah a narrative kinship with Nora, in Ibsen’s classic play of a woman who leaves her family in order to find a life authentic to herself.

The civil rights struggle exhibited in the story shines a light on issues common to such struggles that have been undertaken by groups throughout history: Must the member of a group sacrifice their pursuit of individual happiness for the sake of their community? When the majority group makes token offerings to appease the minority group, what is the response to be? To accept the concession or to demand more? How valuable is the help of well-intended members of the majority group in the struggle? Since legal points are more easily won than shifts in attitude on the part of the majority, must impassioned members of the minority group exhaust themselves in banging against a wall of indifference on the part of the majority, since it could take generations for attitudes to change?

All of this is present in the multifaceted work of theatrical art presented on the TLT stage. What is most memorable, however, is the dance-like, visually poetic interchange between actors engaged in impassioned dialogues via American Sign Language. It does leave one with a taste to go out and learn more — to take a step into a larger, more diverse world.

“Children of a Lesser God” runs through Feb. 4. For more information call (253) 272-2281 or visit www.tacomalittletheatre.com.

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