It’s been almost forty years since the original production of Children Of A Lesser God premiered on Broadway. It’s a beautiful play, tracing the relationship between a deaf woman, Sarah, and a speech teacher, James. But what does a play that was written decades ago have to offer modern audiences?
You could ask this question of any number of shows currently on Broadway. This year, we’re seeing a spate of revivals; they’re practically everywhere you look. Tony Kushner’s Angels In America, Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh, George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan, and plenty of others. Like ghosts, lingering, waiting for something to be resolved, these shows return to Broadway for a reason.
The 1980 production of Children Of A Lesser God cast Phillis Frelich, who happened to be deaf, in the lead role. The performance—and the production—were hailed as groundbreaking. But in the forty intervening years we’ve made only modest headway in normalizing the casting of differently abled actors.
As the entertainment industry delves deeper and more meaningfully into a long overdue conversation on inclusion, Children Of A Lesser God continues to be ahead of its time, not stopping at simply casting a deaf actress in the leading role (this time the indomitable Lauren Ridloff), but taking the steps to create unparalleled access for deaf and hearing impaired audience members.
Even the text of the play itself argues something more radical than inclusion, circling themes of profound listening and acceptance. Sarah spends the play struggling to get James to understand that her deafness is not something to be fixed, that she is whole and complete as she is and should not be expected to assimilate into the speaking world.
No play has maintained its relevance more than Tony Kushner’s Angels In America. The AIDS epidemic may have declined, but the show has always offered more than a simple reflection on a particular moment in history; the windingly epic play questions our collective instinct to ossify ourselves in the face of a changing world.
Furthermore, the inclusion of Roy Cohn—based on the real-life Cohn— as a fully developed and fleshed out character, offers us something no one could have predicted when the play first premiered in the early nineties; insight into the man who now sits in the White House. The many years relationship between Cohn and the current President only serves to underscore Angels’ evergreen exploration of the tension between stasis and movement.
That tension is perhaps why so many plays, written so many years ago, still have something to say today. And, surprisingly, perhaps another revival up this season, can offer us a path forward.
Shaded with humor and levity, Kenneth Lonergan’s Lobby Hero deals with the shortcomings of our criminal justice system—particularly those around race—the coercive ways misogyny can be exploited in the work place and the questions of personal integrity that come up as we try to navigate it all. Again, all of these conversations are still applicable today, but one theme in particular stands out: In the face of impossible questions, there are no easy answers; it’s a muddle of less-than-perfect options and we do the best we can, given the circumstances.
These are just three examples of excellent revivals on Broadway this season. Don’t miss the thrilling new productions of Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women, The Boys in the Band, and Tom Stoppard’s Travesties.
Perhaps, as we watch these shows today, we need to think beyond the individual questions they present, and look at the circumstances in which they arise. Maybe now, with the benefit of those intervening years, we will see something new, and finally lay some of these conversations to rest.