The Wager, pr. 1967
Doing a Good One for the Red Man, pr. 1969
The Froegle Dictum, pr. 1971
The War on Tatem, pr. 1972
The Kramer, pr. 1972
When You Comin’ Back, Red Ryder?, pr. 1973
The Odyssey of Jeremy Jack, pr., pb. 1974 (with Carleene Johnson)
The Ultimate Grammar of Life, pr., pb. 1974
The Halloween Bandit, pr. 1976
Children of a Lesser God, pr. 1979
The Hands of Its Enemy, pr. 1984
The Majestic Kid, pr. 1985
The Heart Outright, pr. 1986
Big Mary, pb. 1989
The Hero Trilogy, pb. 1989
Stumps, pr. 1989
Stefanie Hero, pr. 1990
Kringle’s Window, pb. 1994
The Homage that Follows, pb. 1995
Showdown on Rio Road, pr. 1996 (with Ross Marks)
Crunch Time, pr. 1997 (with Phil Treon)
Road to a Revolution, pr. 2001
Tommy J and Sally, pr. 2002
Dreams of Long Lasting, 1992
Children of a Lesser God, 1986 (with Hesper Anderson)
Clara’s Heart, 1988
The Majestic Kid, 1988
City of Joy, 1992
Homage, 1996 (adaptation of his play The Homage That Follows)
Santa Fe, 1997
The Disintegration of Aaron Weiss, 1977
As of the early 1970’s Mark Howard Medoff became recognized as one of the most promising American playwrights working in the tradition of mainstream realistic theater. He was the son of Lawrence R. Medoff, a physician, and Thelma Butt, a psychologist. Following his graduation from the University of Miami in 1962 Medoff worked for two years as a supervisor of publications for the Capitol Radio Engineering Institute in Washington, D.C. In 1964 he entered Stanford University and graduated in 1966 with a master’s degree in English. He was then hired by New Mexico State University, Las Cruces.
Medoff’s one-act, experimental Doing a Good One for the Red Man was performed in Las Cruces in 1969. The play examines the encounter between a Native American and an unthinking, middle-of-the-road white couple. Thematically, the play explores the problems of communication, in this case represented by the chance meeting of two very different cultures, and it reveals Medoff’s early interest in the dramatic use of violence. At the end of the play the quiet, stoic Native American suddenly explodes in a frenzy of violence and kills the couple.
His most popular early work was The Wager. First performed in 1967, the play enjoyed a successful run Off-Broadway in 1974, when it was produced at the Eastside Playhouse and proved to be popular with the theatergoing public, though critical opinion was mixed. Some critics thought the play too derivative of the intimate and provoking dramas of Tom Stoppard. In the play the lives of two graduate students and a married couple collide in a narrative of sexual infidelity, impotent communication, and frustrated violence.
The Kramer, another experimental work, received its premiere at the American Observatory Theater in San Francisco. The play explores the destructive effects of blind ambition and selfish power. When You Comin’ Back, Red Ryder?, performed at the Circle Repertory Theatre in New York in 1973, more clearly echoes the theme and setting of The Wager and did much to solidify Medoff’s reputation. The play is structured around two sets of couples and the havoc caused by the unexpected intrusion of a violent, perhaps psychopathic, drug smuggler. Teddy, the smuggler, forces each character to confess the “truth” about his or her life; the play’s structure is punctuated by these moments of revelation. Medoff’s next four plays–The Odyssey of Jeremy Jack, The Ultimate Grammar of Life, The Halloween Bandit, and The Disintegration of Aaron Weiss–failed to build on the success of When You Comin’ Back, Red Ryder?
With the 1979 premiere of Children of a Lesser God, however, Medoff once again proved that he was an important force in contemporary American theater. In this play Medoff explores his favorite theme: the difficulties of personal communication. In his starkest treatment of this theme Medoff structures his play around the relationship between Sarah, a deaf woman, and James Leeds, a gifted “hearing” teacher. Children of a Lesser God was written for a deaf actress and friend of Medoff, Phyllis Frelich. The play’s chief strength lies in Medoff’s remarkable ability to depict the world of a deaf person, a world that Sarah calls a “silence full of sounds.”
Medoff is an actor and a director as well as a playwright. He won the Jefferson Award for his portrayal of Teddy in When You Comin’ Back, Red Ryder? and has acted in and directed numerous plays by others. His many awards include an Obie Award for distinguished playwriting, an Outer Critics Circle Award in 1974, and a Tony Award in 1980 for Children of a Lesser God. In 1978 he became the head of the drama department at New Mexico State University, Las Cruces, where he settled with his wife, Stephanie Thorne, and their three daughters. He continued in that position until his retirement in 2000, when he became adjunct professor of theater at the University of Oklahoma and a consultant in theater to the English department of the University of New Mexico. His film work includes Clara’s Heart, City of Joy, and The Majestic Kid. He has received many awards, including The Media Award of the President’s Committee on Employment of the Handicapped and an Academy Award nomination for Best Screenplay for Children of a Lesser God in 1987.
Medoff’s reputation rests on three works: The Wager, When You Comin’ Back, Red Ryder?, and Children of a Lesser God. These plays reveal Medoff’s impressive control over structure and illustrate his preoccupation with the theme of communication. Medoff’s most recognizable characters mask their true, inner emotions until they are forced to confront the consequences of such a lie. It is often the sudden intrusion of a menacing “outsider” that forces such a confrontation. Audiences have enjoyed Medoff’s most successful work, and his place as a popular playwright seems assured. Critics, however, remain divided. Reviewers have labeled Children of a Lesser God a “disability play” and argued that Medoff could only work in “formulas.” On the other hand, other critics praised the work for its power and for its unflinching focus on basic human emotions. It seems clear, however, that if Medoff can continue to blend his interest in the failure of human communication with a tight dramatic structure, he will be considered a major contemporary playwright.