Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 945
Children of a Lesser God is Mark Medoff’s eighth full-length play and by far his most successful, though five of them have been included in Burns Mantle’s Best Plays series and one, When You Comin’ Back, Red Ryder? (pr. 1973), won an Obie and an Outer Circle Critics Award for best playwriting of the 1973-1974 season. According to Medoff, Leeds, the protagonist of his play The Wager (pr. 1967), is the brother of James Leeds in Children of a Lesser God, though there is nothing in either play aside from the name that connects them. The Leeds of The Wager is a cold intellectual; when his roommate, Ward, bets that he can seduce the wife of a friend within a specified time, Leeds alters the wager so that they bet not on seduction itself but on whether the husband will kill Ward or at least attempt to do so within forty-eight hours after the seduction. Unlike the potentially lethal Leeds of The Wager, who carries a revolver in a shoulder holster and who manipulates people ruthlessly, James Leeds is a warm and caring person, utterly nonviolent. If, as Orin and later Sarah herself charge, he manipulates Sarah in trying to make her learn to lip-read and speak instead of fully accepting her as she is, he does so out of love, not for a game or a power play. The one thing the Leeds brothers have in common is cleverness and wit, but The Wager’s Leeds can be insufferable and enjoys inflicting pain, whereas James Leeds, despite some difficulty in sharing Sarah’s perspective, is a lovable as well as loving individual.
Children of a Lesser God was the first play written about deafness and using sign language. The National Theatre for the Deaf stages plays signed by deaf players, but those plays are not about deafness and signing versus lipreading and speaking. They do not dramatize the sensitivities of the deaf and their relationship with the hearing world, as Children of a Lesser God does. Medoff had not any particular interest in deafness until he met a National Theatre for the Deaf actress, Phyllis Frelich, who was married to Robert Steinberg, the scenic and lighting designer for Medoff’s play The Conversion of Aaron Weiss (pr. 1977). Born deaf, with deaf parents and seven deaf brothers and sisters, Frelich had never learned lipreading or speech, and during their first conversations, Steinberg had to translate for Medoff until he could learn sufficient sign language to communicate on his own. Frelich observed to Medoff that there were no roles in the “hearing” theater for deaf players, and she herself had retired from the stage and settled into domesticity with her husband and two sons. Intrigued by a vital marriage between a deaf wife and hearing husband and impressed by Frelich’s dynamic personality and acting skill, Medoff volunteered to write a play for her.
An actor and director as well as playwright, Medoff became Chairman of the Drama Department of New Mexico State University in June of 1978, and wanting to bring in some professionals to work with students, he invited the Steinbergs for the play that he had promised to write for them. The initial workshop production of Children of a Lesser God was staged at New Mexico State in April, 1979, with Frelich as Sarah and her husband as James, under Medoff’s direction.
That fall the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles planned for its second production a dramatization of a Leo Tolstoy work which at the last minute proved unavailable, whereupon director Gordon Davidson turned to Medoff, whose The Kramer (pr. 1972) he had produced, and filled in the missing slot with Children of a Lesser God. It proved to be the most successful new play in the Mark Taper Forum’s history. Davidson invited Medoff to direct it, but the playwright preferred to have Davidson take over, while he revised extensively before and during rehearsals, deleting six characters and writing a completely new second act. At the Taper, John Rubenstein replaced Steinberg as James Leeds, and William Frankfather, who had acted in Medoff’s plays since 1967, played Mr. Franklin. The play was a smash hit and went on to Broadway, where it won the Outer Critics Circle and Drama Desk awards and the Tony for best play, as well as the Tony for best actor and actress. The 1986 motion-picture version won the Oscar for best actress (Marlee Matlin) and received a nomination for best actor (William Hurt), but though it was an immense critical and commercial success, its script (by director Randa Haines) is not up to the level of the play, cutting altogether the subplot about Orin’s rebellion, having the leads simply live together instead of being married, and (aside from Sarah’s deafness) turning the drama into a more conventional love story.
Medoff has written one later play for Frelich, The Hands of Its Enemy (pr. 1984), in which she is a deaf author whose first play is in production, starring her daughter (played by Medoff’s oldest daughter). During rehearsals, the director (Richard Dreyfuss), pushing the author to dig deeper into the conflict among her characters, uncovers a dreadful, traumatic secret about her own childhood. Though such a hit at the Mark Taper Forum that it was later moved to another Los Angeles theater for a prolonged run, The Hands of Its Enemy had less success in New York. In it, deafness is not central to the drama; the playwright could as readily be a hearing person. Nevertheless, it is a dynamic work that is a significant successor to Children of a Lesser God, which remains Medoff’s most rewarding play.