It’s easy, and common, to think of “Children of a Lesser God” as a play about a deaf woman.
And Kelly Woodland, who’s directing the new Manatee Players production of the Mark Medoff drama, says that’s not inaccurate. But she says “Children of a Lesser God” is a lot more than that.
“It’s a play about how we look at, not just people with disabilities, but people who are outside the mainstream culture,” Woodland said. “It’s about our right to be entitled to our identity.”
The play, which premiered in 1979 and became a Broadway hit the following year, revolves around a young woman who has spent most of her life in a school for the deaf. She had been a student there, and when we meet her she is working there as a janitor.
She signs but has never learned to speak aloud. A new teacher comes to the school and encourages her to speak. He’s well-meaning, but she’s resistant; she sees speaking out loud as showing shame in her deafness and as a betrayal of the deaf subculture in which she has lived her life.
The show is often cast with deaf actors. Medoff wrote the show with deaf actress Phyllis Frelich in mind. She played the lead role in the original production. Marlee Matlin later took the role of Sarah in the film version, which came out in 1986. It made her a star, and she was the youngest woman and the only deaf woman to win the Academy Award for Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role.
It’s about our right to be entitled to our identity.
The cast of the Manatee Players production, which opens Thursday in the Bradenton Kiwanis Theater, consists entirely of hearing actors.
“We really, really wanted to cast deaf actors,” Woodland said. Several auditioned, and were initially cast, but they had to drop out for various reasons, he said.
The two leads in the production, Corinne Woodland, the director’s daughter, and Jason Kimble, both had some very limited experience with signing. They worked with a consultant to teach them enough so they could look fluent and be accurate in their signing.
Corinne Woodland said she didn’t find signing while acting especially challenging.
“It’s actually not that different,” she said, “because signing is so expressive.”
Kimble had some challenges because his character, who can hear, often speaks his lines while he’s signing them. American Sign Language is a distinct language from English, with different structure and syntax, so he often has to sign different words than he’s speaking.
But Kelly Woodland said all the actors sign so fluidly that they make it look as though they’ve been signing all their lives.
Partly because of the challenges of the material, and despite the acclaim the play has earned, “Children of a Lesser God” isn’t often staged by regional theaters. So many more people know the film than the stage version.
The film zeroes in on the romantic aspect of the story, but the play has broader reach. Kelly Woodland said that people who come see her production expecting a stage version of the movie are in for a surprise.
“It’s different from the movie,” she said. “Boy howdy, is it different from the movie.”
Details: Oct. 20-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. Information: 941-748-5875, manateeperformingartscenter.com.