There are some really solid reasons why theaters seldom stage Mark Medoff’s “Children of a Lesser God.” None of them has anything to do with the quality of the play. It’s often touching, always compelling and at times even provocative.
But it’s a tough play for the actors and directors. The central story of the play is a romance between a hearing man and deaf woman who refuses to learn to read lips or speak out loud. Much of the play’s dialogue is signed, with the hearing man speaking his own dialogue and translating the other characters’ lines.
So Manatee Players deserve some props merely for taking the play on. They deserve to be congratulated heartily for staging it so beautifully.
Their current production in the Bradenton Kiwanis Theater, the smaller of the two spaces at the Manatee Performing Arts Center, is poignant and powerful.
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Much of the credit goes to the mother-daughter team of Kelly Wynn Woodland and Corinne Woodland, both of whom are familiar to Manatee Players regulars. Kelly Wynn Woodland has directed an assured, beautifully paced and fluidly staged production, and Corinne Woodland delivers a beautiful performance in one of the two lead roles.
She plays Sarah, a woman in her mid-20s who has spent almost her entire life in a school for the deaf. Her parents sent her there when she was 5, and assumed to be mentally disabled, and she has stayed at the school into adulthood working as a maid. It turns out she is of above-average intelligence, but she refuses to learn to speak and lip-read because she thinks that would betray her sense of “deaf pride.”
Kelly Wynn Woodland has created an assured, beautifully paced and fluidly staged production, and Corinne Woodland delivers a beautiful performance in one of the two lead roles.
A new teacher at the school (Jason Kimble) tries to persuade Sarah to let him teach her to speak. He soon becomes smitten with her, and after a while she falls in love with him. A school administrator (Ken Basque) disapproves of their relationship. Sarah’s deaf activist friend (Killam Johnson), who seems to have feelings for her himself, considers it a betrayal. Another female student (Maryann Byram) who has a crush on the teacher tries to come between the couple in any way she can.
Both Kimble and Corinne Woodland (who never speaks a word in the entire show) had to learn to sign for their roles, and by opening night their signing was facile enough to become a benefit, when it could have been a distraction.
Besides the performances, a couple of the highlights of the production is the set by Ralph Nurmela, a skewed exterior that’s unsettling though not unattractive, and the lighting design by Patrick Bedell.
The relationship between Sarah and the teacher seems abrupt at both the beginning and the end, but that’s not likely to bother you. The second act is devoted less to the romance and more to Sarah’s activism and her sense of identity as a deaf woman, and although it’s that element that gives the play its substance, and makes the signing more than a mere gimmick, its occasional shrillness makes you miss the charm of the first act’s romance.
Besides the performances, a couple of the highlights of the production is the set by Ralph Nurmela, a skewed exterior that unsettling though not unattractive, and the lighting design by Patrick Bedell.
It will probably be a long time before you get to see another staging of “Children of Lesser God,” and it’s very unlikely you’ll ever see one stronger than this from a community theater. Corinne Woodland’s enchanting performance, Kelly Woodland’s straightforward but elegant direction and Nurmela’s set make the strongest impressions — along with Medoff’s script — but lots of smaller elements in this production help make it a memorable evening of theater.
Details: Through Nov. 6, Bradenton Kiwanis Theater at the Manatee Performing Arts Center, 502 Third Ave, W., Bradenton. 7:30 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday. $26-$36. 941-748-5875, manateeperformingartscenter.com.