It's not uncommon in life to hear — but not actually listen. Ask any long-married couple. Or the parent of a toddler. Or, for that matter, the parent of a teenager.
Humankind, in fact, has made rather an art of communication in which the true message fails to get delivered.
In "Children of a Lesser God," playwright Mark Medoff shows us that speech is not the key to talking and cultural gaps of any kind can be nearly impossible to bridge.
These messages come across in the Beth Marshall Presents production of the play, onstage at the Garden Theatre in Winter Garden.
Many are familiar with the story, through its 1986 film adaptation that won Marlee Matlin an Oscar. James, an idealistic new teacher at a school for the deaf, meets Sarah, a young deaf woman who works at the school. They fall in love but disagree on one important point: James thinks Sarah should learn to lip read and speak; Sarah thinks her language — sign language — should be respected. The couple find their relationship threatened by the inability to see each other's point of view.
The nature of the play creates incredible challenges for the actors who must constantly employ sign language. The actors brilliantly make their signing seem natural; Joe Kramlinger is credited as American Sign Language director.
The attraction between James and Sarah doesn't always shine through their conflicts. But that's in large part due to Medoff's script, which sets up a meet-cute scenario and a fun dinner date, but then asks the audience to just accept they're in love.
Lead actors Will Hagaman and Eliza Stevens enhance their characters with looks and movement. If you can tear your eyes away from Stevens' fiercely flying hands, the story is written on her face, as well. Hagaman is saddled with speaking aloud whenever Sarah signs, in essence interpreting for the hearing audience. But he brings such natural ease to the role that the dramatic conceit never feels artificial.
The supporting cast is uniformly excellent: Mike Deaven as a militant deaf-rights campaigner; Madison Graham as a lovesick student; Ava Tunstall as Sarah's complicated mother; Adrian LePeltier as the school principal and supporter of the status quo; Jamie Middleton as a lawyer in over her head.
Under the co-direction of Brenna Nicely and Beth Marshall, the signing stays front and center, like the heartbeat of the play, but it can distract — dampening the emotions often seen elsewhere in an actor's body language.
That, of course, is my perspective as a hearing man. Deaf characters in the play would be quick to point out that non-hearing individuals would likely feel quite differently.
And maybe that's the play's ultimate message. We can't walk in someone else's shoes. We can't fully understand another person's psyche. The best we can do is listen.
'Children of a Lesser God'
• When: 8 p.m. Fridays and Thursday, March 28; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays; through March 30
• What else: The Friday, March 22, performance will be fully interpreted in American Sign Language.
• Where: Garden Theatre, 160 W. Plant St., Winter Garden
• Tickets: $25; $21 seniors and students
• Call: 407-877-4736
• Online: gardentheatre.orgCopyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun