A multi-tiered level of conceptual thought and emotional storytelling align perfectly in Craig Lucas’s devastatingly good new play, I was Most Alive with You. It drives down a twisting and emotional road attempting to make sense out of chaos while not plunging off a cliff. It holds your hand tightly but keeps the upcoming vista out of sight just enough that the final destination remains unknown. In truth, it’s a genre play that could fit easily and strongly into the category of ‘dysfunctional family drama’ with Lucas (Prayer for My Enemy) formulating its working gears and parts of conflict under the banners of: addiction, trauma, faith, and deafness. It’s a tree of miracles, this vehicle, that is so well constructed that it drives as smooth as one could hope. The gears are frameworks for the drama, and not necessarily the ‘problem’ within, but a component in the dilemma that affects the unit. To focus on just one as the ‘issue’ would be a disservice to the overall, but faith and the structure of Belief hangs overhead, much like the shadow characters on the floor above, and the Book of Job that is weaved into the framework throughout. Faith in our unity and life within despair is the battleground, even when the powerful biblical bangs come, three in a row, one after the after, it hits like a chain reaction multi-car collision on a cold frozen highway in the middle of a stormy winter day, harshly and haphazardly from all angles. The play punches hard in an instant, blind sighting the passengers with its power and slow-motioned feel. The whiplash and striking pain is hot, but surmountable, if taken one day at a time, ushering in the only thing one can say when the lights come up for the much-needed intermission, and that one word is “WOW“.
“Life, as we find it, is too hard for us; it brings us too many pains, disappointments and impossible tasks. In order to bear it we cannot dispense with palliative measures…There are perhaps three such measures: powerful deflections, which cause us to make light of such misery; substitutive satisfactions, which diminish it; and intoxicating substances, which make us insensible to it.” – Sigmund Freud (quote from the intro to the play)
Opening on the first International Day of Sign Languages, Playwrights Horizons drives up to the gates with one of the most compelling and intoxicating play that I’ve seen in a while, layering one format of the play underneath another, giving fresh construction to an old adage. In the draft of the written play, Lucas writes: “created to be performed by Deaf & hearing actors for Deaf & hearing audiences. In the original productions, Shadow actors augmented the principal cast, providing ASL translations of all dialogue. Projected English translations were provided for lines performed solely in ASL. Sound cues were projected..All future productions must provide full access for hearing & Deaf audiences at all performances by whatever means chosen. A director of artistic sign language must be employed. Any production attempting to forego these conditions will be in violation of the author’s wishes as well as the licensing agreement.” This production, directed with eyes wide-open by the inventive Tyne Rafaeli (PR’s The Rape of the Sabine Women…) and the director of Artistic Sign Language (ASL), Sabrina Dennison (ASL translation for Yale U’s Twelfth Night), take this instruction very seriously, creating a cast made up of both hearing and Deaf, and with a secondary level of sign language interpreters mirroring movement and emotion on a higher level. The double-decker approach, designed with a compelling eye for emotional truth by Arnulfo Maldonado (PH’s Dance Nation), gives a dual telling for those in the audience who are either Deaf or hearing. I’m not sure how the experience for a Deaf audience member would be compared to mine, but my guess might be that it would seem complicated and jarring, and not entirely fluid and all-encompassing. The subtitles, projections by Alex Basco Koch (Barrow Street’s Buyer & Cellar), occasionally manifest themselves on numerous surfaces when signing is not reasonable, with ASL being used mostly by the upstairs shadows, but sometimes solely by those down on the main floor. I think I wouldn’t know where to look at some points on the map, and I’d get lost in the shuffle but that’s just a theory. The only comparison I can functionally attempt might be the disconnect when reading subtitles above the proscenium at the opera, with the action and actors too far below to mesh them strongly together in an instantaneous blast. I did find myself hypnotized at times by the drama going on above, which was just as dynamically palpable as what was playing out below. That being said, I would be interested to read feedback from those in the audience who were Deaf, and there seemed to be many, and by all account, they reacted just the same.
In the Torah, the Book of Job, God accepts a bet proposed by Satan: “Take away all of Job’s gifts and let’s see how much he loves you.” and with that as the overall philosophic road map for I was Most Alive with You, Lucas begins his two framed journey through tragedy down a well constructed road to a resting place for the weary, somewhere close to despair without exactly falling into that abyss. Despair, it seems, if you follow the book of Lucas, is “anti-dramatic. Feeling sorry for oneself is always the wrong choice. If we ask anything of theater, it is to show how other human beings have faced insurmountable obstacles. The characters in this narrative, confronted with losses they never anticipated or wished for, must find the highest road at all times. Even a choice to end one’s life is reaching toward improvement. It cannot be otherwise.“
(Now I’m only going to write this first phrase this one time, but take it as the first part of almost every opinionated sentence going forward…) As a hearing audience member, the drama unfolds with textbook accuracy and construction, leading us forward with the weight of a catastrophe laying its heavy hand on the back of the recovering addict and concerned father, Ash, portrayed deeply and empathetically by Michael Gaston (Broadway’s Lucky Guy), with Shadow Ash performing beautifully upstairs by Seth Gore (New York Deaf Theatre). It’s obvious something has shaken his stability and tightly held sobriety to the core. His writing partner, Astrid, dynamically played by Marianna Bassham (HBO’s ‘Olive Kitteridge‘) with her Shadow played by Beth Applebaum (NYDT’s Titus), is worried, and tries with all her might to settle her own self and find a shared momentum to move him forward utilizing the strength of story telling and creation to bring them both back to the here and now. It’s a clear-cut and sure-fire theatrical approach to rectifying trauma, and as a device for restitution, it works its magic solidly, drawing us into Lucas’s dysfunctional family neatly and successfully. The structure plays a strong role in his playwriting, most emphatically when he asks: “How do we live with things we can’t change or fix or understand? What do we do with the insurmountable? That question is what made me write this play. To touch that place in others who also confront the immovable, irreparable, inconceivable. And the inevitable.“
From the notes of Lucas, it’s clear that this play is a wrestling for survival from chaos and destruction. Pleasant, the perfectly named camouflaged wife of Ash, played by Lisa Emery (PH’s Marjorie Prime)/Shadow: Amelia Hensley (Deaf West/Broadway’s Spring Awakening) is almost all the bad disruption rolled up into one. She’s a drinker whose vocal assaults get louder with every sip, and a mother who refuses to use sign language with her adorable Deaf son. Pleasant is sidelined by the seemingly more compassionate units of the family, chastising her into a cocktail’d corner, ensuring that she knows she doesn’t fit. In many ways, her continued marriage to Ash never feels truly authentic or possible, but maybe somewhere in that anger and frustration, there is a construct worth paying attention to. Maybe, she is a possible residual affliction of Ash’s 12-Step recovery and amends, using guilt and remorse against one another. Regardless, it never feels obvious or logical why she is present. That is until it becomes clear that her role is biblically antagonistic, stirring the pot until it boils up and over the edge, especially when it comes to her Deaf son, Knox, gorgeously portrayed by the devastatingly good Russell Harvard (Barrow Street/CTG/La Jolla’s Tribes)/Shadow: Harold Foxx (Deaf West’s Our Town). It’s clear she enjoys being the problem, generally speaking, or at least has gotten comfortable in the brittle role, but the vision we see of her through the cracked rear view mirror is blurry and distorted, made more clear by her interactions with the matriarch of the lot, and her hand written self-prescribed antidote to her husband and son’s detour; both outline a more nuanced and troubled landmark on what first appeared to be an overly simplified mapped out drive.
With Knox, we are given the other spectrum. He’s the loving, sweet, and handsome gay Deaf son, grown man, and lover, who believes with all his soul in the goodness of his existence, especially when living his dream as a teacher of ASL to kids. Passionate and very appealing to all, his heart belongs, naturally, to a man who will test his faith and agreeableness as often and as tragically as possible. Farhad, the rough and tumble man, that ignites a love in Knox that “you could warm your hands by“, is portrayed with a growing strength that multiplies with each and every line spoken and signed by the fantastic Tad Cooley (Kennedy Center’s Waiting for Trees)/Shadow: Anthony Natale (Broadway/Deaf West’s Big River). He grows more solid and real with each moment, twisting and turning around on himself and others, creating an epic portrayal of love, dishonor, and restoration.
Not surprisingly, the family gathers for Thanksgiving (is it that time of year already? and what’s with all the holiday dinners lining up? the next PH production is literally titled, The Thanksgiving Play. too much? or exactly what we need? you decide), and attempt to give thanks for all that surround them. With simple but exacting costumes by David C. Woolard (Primary Stage’s The Roads to Home), direct and sometimes much-needed harsh lighting by Annie Wiegand (Astoria Performing Arts’ Follies), solid sound by Jane Shaw (TFANA’s Measure for Measure) and gorgeously enriching original music by Daniel Kluger (Barrow Street’s The Effect), the gathering for the festivities feels staged but deeply authentic.
Grandmother Carla, played tenderly by the always wonderful Lois Smith (TNG’s Peace for Mary Frances)/Shadow: Kalen Feeney (Deaf Spotlight’s Skin) is simply the warmest, wrapping love and understanding at every turn of a signed phrase. She is the round circle of love at the heart of this piece, sharing with the group her compassion and honesty. She also shared with the clan her caring Mariama, carefully and exactingly portrayed by the solid Gameela Wright (A.R.T.’s Halcyon Days)/Shadow: Broadway’s Director of Artistic Sign language: Children of a Lesser God) who is like a thoughtfully complex religious hug. Mariama has a tale all of her own, that flourishes and descends with a meaningful flutter and heavy heart. Faith is being served at this gathering, and reactions and misunderstandings are passed around like gravy, as they do around a Thanksgiving dinner that never actually manifests itself. Songs are sung/signed and fireworks explode, all before the harsh fluorescent lights of a collision come flickering and harsh, crashing down upon the clan, rerouting them all in ways that resonates broadly, deeply, and intensely. This is the twist in the road I didn’t see coming, or at least aspects of it, until just moments before the call. But it’s the bang that outdoes all the others, and it smacks hard.
Act one ends with a shocking and powerful answer to the first vague question asked, but now, in Act 2, the fall-out will need to be rectified. We are teased, most beautifully with scenes of dual interaction, all intent on saving one from their own struggle with faith. Mariama and Knox. Astrid and Ash. Farhad and Ash. They all connect and engage beautifully with a depth of honesty that shivers. Carla enacts an engagement with both of the other mothers, separately but succinctly, that brings forth a shower of understanding and acknowledgement that feels as long as a prairie highway. Much like all the visitors who come, one by one to each other’s side, the one that will stay stitched into my upholstery forever is the extremely earth shattering moment when Astrid arrives to shake Knox deep into powerlessness and illumination. The fierceness of love and ‘the spit’ and ‘the curse’ that it brings forth gives me a lump in my throat just thinking about it, not to mention the tears that cascaded down during. It’s gives Lucas a chance to shift the whole into high gear, and drives us full speed towards the harrowing creation of an ending. “What could I have done differently“, Ash asks Astrid at one point, but the answer is as complex and exonerating as the last big white-walled scene, and Astrid’s desperate question in response. That demand is the key. The biggest bang on the floor. Craig Lucas, you couldn’t and shouldn’t have done anything differently, because to change that impact, a slice of storytelling that one audience member couldn’t withstand, running out of the theatre desperately during the last act of defiance, would be damnable, as this vase of plenty is earth shatteringly great.