After decades of television and film work, Anthony Edwards is revisiting his roots in a decidedly high-profile setting. On March 22, the actor and director — an alumnus of the hit series “ER”, with additional credits including “Top Gun”, “Zodiac”, and “Northern Exposure” — will make his Broadway debut in the new Broadway revival of Mark Medoff’s acclaimed play Children of a Lesser God, directed by Kenny Leon and set to open April 11 at Studio 54.
Edwards “did a ton of theater” while growing up in Santa Barbara, he recalls, acting in local productions and studying his craft at USC before leaving college to pursue opportunities on screen. His stage experience included, notably, work with artist and activist Rod Lathim, who, as founder of Access Theatre, provided a forum for disabled performers and incorporated sign language into his productions. “I never learned it, but it always fascinated me,” says Edwards. “Hopefully I’ll learn some now.”
This Lesser God, which already reaped wide acclaim in its original Berkshire Theatre Group production, will certainly offer Edwards opportunity to do so. The play, a winner of Tony and Drama Desk Awards in 1980 — and later adapted into a well-received film starring William Hurt and Marlee Matlin — follows James Leeds, an idealistic young teacher at a school for the deaf who falls in love with Sarah Norman, a former student at the school who has chosen not to learn to speak. Leon’s production casts Lauren Ridloff, a former Miss Deaf America, as Sarah, and Joshua Jackson as James.
Edwards plays Mr. Franklin, the school’s superintendent, who is, as the actor puts it, “truly stuck in the old-school. His passion is from a bygone era, but it means everything to him. He believes that Sarah will not be able to live in the hearing world if she does not learn to speak. His belief is, ‘You adapt to me’; it’s all about accepting what he perceives as reality.”
While Edwards concedes that Mr. Franklin has a superiority complex, he notes that from the character’s perspective, “it’s not judging; it’s simply following through. People fight passionately for what they believe in, which is why it’s so exciting to do this play right now: It’s all about communication. How do we communicate, and how do we love, and how do we relate to each other?”
In this staging, those questions will be posed with an interracial romance in the mix, as Ridloff is African-American. “I think all of that will be illuminating,” Edwards says. “Mark Medoff’s words are wonderful because they leave so much room for interpretation. There’s so much depth. Even though it’s a period piece, it will feel very much in the present.”
Lesser God is also made topical by the central presence of a strong-willed, independent-minded woman who struggles with male authority figures, including a lover. “The play was really inspired by Phyllis Frelich,” the deaf actress who originated the part of Sarah, Edwards notes; she and her husband were close to Medoff. “It was inspired by the greatness of a woman.”
Now based in New York, Edwards returned to acting as a full-on pursuit only several years ago. “I took a long break after leaving ‘ER’,” he says. During that time, he focused on fatherhood; he and wife Jeanine Lobell have four children. “When my kids were little, I didn’t see myself giving up weekends, and we wanted to travel. There was the aspect of commitment, and I had the luxury to be able to make a choice.”
Having taken on mostly TV roles in recent years — among them, incidentally, judges, in Showtime’s “Billions” and the miniseries “Law & Order: True Crime” — Edwards is eager to plant his feet on a stage again. “Part of what makes working on a TV series inspiring is that you keep collaborating and experimenting with the other actors,” he says. But at least while the show is running, “you never really get to complete the process. Nothing beats having that sense of completion every day [in the theater] — to be able to start something at the beginning and go through to the end, every night.”
An avid theatergoer himself, Edwards also looks forward to being part of “an ongoing organic piece that will keep changing and growing in subtle ways as we continue to explore it, and to keep it fresh for each audience. As an actor I know that while audiences can think they’re anonymous, they’re not — they’re intricately part of the energy of every performance. That connection is why we all go, and the opportunity to be part of that connection is what has always inspired me.”
Photo by Matthew Murphy.