Saturday, May 9, 2009

Soulstice Theatre's Children of a Lesser God.

By Russ Bickerstaff
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Mark Medoff’s Children of a Lesser God is an interesting challenge for any cast. Running now through May 16th, Soulstice Theatre’s production is an interesting experience for any theatergoer. The love story between a speech therapist and a cortically deaf woman combines spoken dialogue with sign language in a really dynamic dramatic mix.

Matthew Michaelis stars as speech therapist James Leeds—a man who knows enough sign language to get into teaching speech to the hearing impaired. When his administrator (Pat Perkins) gives Leeds the opportunity to teach Sarah Norman (a woman who can’t hear at all and doesn’t WANT to learn to speak played by Jillian Smith) the challenge seems insurmountable at first. Slowly James and Sarah open up to each other and fall in love—a relationship that culminates in marriage right before intermission. When fellow deaf person Orrin (Greg North) tries to enlist the support of Sarah and James in activism to support civil rights for the disabled, relationships are strained an a potentially irreparable way.

It’s a very provocative drama. Soulstice Theatre Artistic Director Char Manny, who also directed the show, has done a spectacular job of focusing the attention of the play on the drama of interpersonal communication. There is no set and almost no props. The Keith Tamsett Studio Theatre is intensely intimate. Michaelis and Leeds learned sign language specifically for the roles. Michaelis, Leeds and North all speak sign throughout the play, with Leeds’ dialogue existing exclusively in sign. Being forced to speak entirely without a voice, Smith’s performance is extremely physical. Smith’s performance is phenomenal—focusing exclusively on the intricate subtleties of physical communication has made her performance that much more compelling.

Sitting in the front row, I found myself becoming really sensitive to body language onstage. One the female lead is incapable of speaking, the slightest change in facial expression can be overwhelming. There’s a sensitivity to physical nuance that comes out of that—it’s a kind of dramatic experience that simply COULD NOT happen in a bigger theatre with a bigger budget. It’s the type of experience that those who only go to big budget professional shows are missing out on.

The sensitivity in physical action that one feels with Jillian Smith transfers to very other actor onstage—which really exaggerates anything that doesn’t seem at all authentic in the cast’s performance. Flaws are amplified. As disappointing as this can be, it never becomes entirely distracting. Smith and Michaelis are doing too good a job up there to allow an audience’s attention to wander and the space is intimate enough that it’s difficult not to feel emotionally connected.

Also putting in a solid performance here is Greg North in the role of deaf activist Orin Dennis. It’s a sympathetic performance that does a clever job of rendering the character’s strengths, weaknesses and stubbornness even without the character getting all that much stage time. After a performance like this, it’d be nice to see North take a more central role in an upcoming production somewhere . . .

It’s interesting to see Ellen Sommers show-up in a another Soulstice theatre production. She put in a memorable stage appearance in Soulstice’s To Gillian On Her 34th Birthday—where she played a girl with a crush on the male lead. Here she’s playing a deaf student –who has a crush on the male lead. She’s good at it, though . . . it’s difficult not to feel her longing as she makes a concerted effort to get Leeds’ attention. You know it’s not going to happen, but Sommers plays the role so well that you kind of hope it will. Sommers just graduated from Whitefish Bay High School. This fall she’ll be studying theatre at SUNY Stonybrook.


Soulstice Theatre’s production of Children of a Lesser God runs through May 16th at the Marian Center for Nonprofits. A portion of the ticket sales will go to the Center for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing in West Allis.

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