The world premiere of I WAS MOST ALIVE WITH YOU is firing on all cylinders and requires we be MOST ALIVE as an audience to every cue– visual and aural– as we witness this extraordinary ensemble wrestle with life’s random cruelties. It’s a potent evening presented by the Huntington Theatre Company at the BCA’s Calderwood Pavilion and in a completely immersive way.
Tony-nominated playwright Craig Lucas who gave us the Obie-winning “Prelude To A Kiss,” and Broadway’s “An American in Paris” has written and directed a script thick with tragedy in search of an answer, and has designed it to be inclusive for both hearing and deaf audiences.
The plot involves a gay, deaf, now sober ASL teacher named Knox played by the commanding Russell Harvard a deaf actor who inspired Lucas after the playwright saw him upstage Daniel Day-Lewis in “There will Be Blood.” In the play, Knox is navigating a complicated relationship with the maladjusted Farhad (the marvelous Tad Cooley) who is also deaf and has a troubled past which includes an on-going battle with drug addiction.
All the issues erupt from this kernel in flashback to the previous fateful Thanksgiving when Knox introduces Farhad to the family and all the simmering dynamics are brought to the table by a sublime cast. Everyone’s values and faith are tested. Farhad is Muslim, Knox’s grandmother Carla (the gravely hilarious Nancy E. Carroll) is a converted Jew, Knox’s mom Pleasant (a mordant Dee Nelson) is Christian and married to Knox’s father Ash (Steven Goldstein) a TV comedy writer, is unusually close to his writing partner Astrid (Marianna Basham) an atheist who is exploring the Book of Job which she declares is shared by “Jews, Christians, and Muslims.”
JOB aside, the very mounting of this production was a Herculean task. The deaf and hearing characters, played by deaf and hearing actors, are shadowed onstage by interpreters who are not standing off to the side, but rather, are embedded right in the middle of the action, translating American Sign language into spoken English and back again, translating spoken English into ASL. Three of the interpreters are deaf. All of this happens in real time and there is a double set of surtitles projected above and upstage to translate the signing.
The result is hugely challenging, alternately mesmerizing, confusing, funny, moving. I found myself juggling my attention to encompass all modes of communication as well as the interpersonal dynamics which are thematically loaded. At the outset of the play, Knox views his deafness, his gayness, and his alcoholism as gifts. But what if he’s pushed farther? In the course of the play, Knox is tested like many of the other characters down to his core. And all of these characters are dealing with issues that cross a multitude of boundaries: sexual, political, religious, social, financial, emotional and physical, involving illness, injury, incarceration, addiction, adoption, abandonment, sexual molestation.
The result of the approach to these themes and the specter of all this suffering is sometimes overwhelming. Luckily the set is calmly lit, and streamlined for maximum efficiency with a series of pale wood rectangular elements which become sliding panels, or chairs emerging from casings in the walls, smoothly re-arranged as office space, living room, or hospital. The set helped unify a jam packed agenda and provide plenty of space for the actors and their shadow interpreters. Still I had to tune out some things in order to tune in others. It’s almost too much that there’s also video projected to echo either the setting or what’s being said. The play still feels a bit disjointed, my attention too split and by the end I was still trying to knit it all together and catch up somehow.
What’s refreshing here is that the play focuses us on the one universal truth about being human: our mortality– the great leveler. The issues around communication, deafness–like whether to sign or not to sign–are simply another version of the fundamental challenges we all face: how do we connect in the world to each other and to ourselves in the face of our inevitable end? Is faith the answer? In what? In whom? Faith according to Ash, “doesn’t prevent suffering, it prevents man from thinking he’s God.”
I did hold in my head something Astrid said at the beginning of the play about something that distinguishes us as human: storytelling– and JOB is a story that we seem to be telling across all borders. So the task of the writers who bookend the play, and indeed the task that playwright Lucas has set for himself, is to figure out what story these characters (and indeed, all of us) can create for themselves in response? Do they say yes or no to life no matter what disaster comes calling? Ash’s answer echoes what Molly Bloom breathed in one of the most sublime passages in all literature at the end of James Joyce’s “Ulysses.”
“Yes. Yes. (answers the phone) Hello?”
You must see this one of a kind production in its world premiere: I WAS MOST ALIVE WITH YOU presented by The Huntington Theatre at the BCA Calderwood through June 26! YES.