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Paulanne Simmons

CHILDREN OF A LESSER GOD -- Theresa Wailes, Jeffrey Denman. Photo by Theresa Squire.

"Children of a Lesser God"
Directed by Blake Lawrence
Presented by Keen Company
The Connelly Theater
220 East 4th St. (between aves. A & B)
Opened March 18, 2006
Tues.-Sat 8 p.m., Sun. 2 p.m.
$19 (212) 868-4444 or visit www.smarttix.com
Closes April 6, 2006
Reviewed by Paulanne Simmons March 18, 2006

Keen Company is only six years old, but although it is still in its youth, under the artistic direction of the savvy and dedicated Carl Forsman, the company has shown itself to be bright, thoughtful and willing to take on challenging work.

Keen's newest challenge is Mark Medoff's 1980 Tony Award-winning "Children of a Lesser God." The play, about speech teacher James Leeds and Sarah Norman, the deaf girl he falls in love with, is difficult in several ways. Not only are most of the actors required to sign as well as speak, but Medoff has stipulated that the three parts for deaf people most be played by deaf or hard-of-hearing actors.

First, Forsman found himself a sensitive director, Blake Lawrence, who was willing to throw herself wholeheartedly into the world of the deaf. Then Lawrence found three fantastic deaf actors – Alexandria Wailes (Sarah) and Guthrie Nutter and Tami Lee Santimyer who play Orin Franklin and Lydia, two of Sarah's fellow-students.

Wailes never says a word, but her face, her gestures and her exquisite signing speak clearly and poignantly of her anguish as well as her indomitable spirit. Santimyer, as the perky and pesky Lydia captures perfectly the naïve and natural sexuality of teenage girls.

Orin may or may not be the voice of the playwright. At any rate it is he who speaks the words of protest and empowerment that tear apart the slender threads holding Sarah and James together. Nutter does this with a grace and sincerity that is a touch self-righteous, but never ridiculous.

But Jeffry Denman, who plays James Leeds, has perhaps the most arduous role. It is he who must bridge the distance between the world of the deaf and the world of the hearing. He must speak not only for himself, but also for Sarah, who can only sign. Denman does this with humor and compassion. His nuanced performance does not leave his character isolated in heroism, but vulnerable as a man who loves a woman he can never have completely.

To top it all, Nathan Heverin's set of vertical flats arranged on platforms allows the actors to appear and disappear in a visual counterpart to the game of hide and seek they seem to be forever playing in their relationships and their language.

Children of a Lesser God has a strong supporting cast in Ian Blackman, Lee Roy Rogers, and Makela Spielman, all representing the hearing, speaking world in all its confusion, hypocrisy and good will.

Medoff left the ending of Children of a Lesser God deliberately ambiguous. It's not at all clear whether or not Sarah and James will be able to overcome all the obstacles that stand in the way of their relationship. One gets the feeling Medoff did this because he was aiming at something broader than a love story between the hearing and the deaf. He was trying to illuminate the barriers we all put up, barriers that keep us from communicating, from loving, from forming relationships.

Keen Company has a knack for picking classic plays that are not only relevant but also important. Children of a Lesser God, like so much of this company's work, has all the earmarks of a work of faith and love.


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