Regional Reviews: Boston
I Was Most Alive With You
Also see Nancy's review of Matilda the Musical
At its core, I Was Most Alive With You is the story of Knox (Russell Harvard), a deaf, gay recovering addict. He, his family, and friends have the troubles of Job heaped upon them and struggle with their faith. Lucas combines tragedy, drama, and comedy to create complex situations for his characters, but cannot successfully juggle all of the balls he has tossed in the air. The list of controversial issues in the deaf community, the questions raised about faith, disagreements about addiction treatment protocol, and the representation of diverse groups within the assembled parties (leading one family member to proclaim they could qualify for a reality show) obfuscates whatever message the play is meant to deliver.
Knox is the most developed of the characters, and Harvard is riveting in the central role, whether he is showing the beauty of prayer in American Sign Language (ASL), expressing gratitude at the family's Thanksgiving dinner, or inhabiting rage and despair when darkness invades his life. His tenuous recovery is challenged by his new boyfriend Farhad (Tad Cooley, very good), a lapsed Muslim and active addict, as well as by his parents Ash (Steven Goldstein) and Pleasant (Dee Nelson). Ash is a recovering alcoholic and Pleasant is notrecovering, that is; her drinking is only one of the problems she contributes to the family circle. Their marriage is also unsteady on its feet as Ash is in love with his writing partner Astrid (Marianna Bassham). About the only source of stability is Ash's mother Carla, played with strength and warmth by Nancy E. Carroll, until her foundation shows cracks as well. Rounding out the circle is Carla's friend from church Mariama (Gameela Wright), a caretaker with her own tragic family story.
The production begins with the cast (speakers and shadows) parading out to the tiered set to introduce themselves by their character names. Whenever an actor uses the spoken word, ASL is delivered simultaneously. When a character uses ASL, surtitles are projected overhead. Those dialogues often had the most clarity for me, but I am also accustomed to watching television with subtitles, keeping one eye on the words and one eye on the action. The Huntington helpfully includes an insert in the program with a tip for audience members who may find the visual stimulation "overwhelming." However, the visual stimulation of the signing is an asset, in my book, as the rest of the staging is fairly static. Lucas as director apparently is sensitive to the possibility of people having to deal with too much movement, more so than he is as playwright to the possibility of having to deal with too many threads that are only loosely connected to the fabric of the plot.
The soundscape (design and original music by Daniel Kluger) artfully integrates mundane sounds (ringing telephone, cars) with pulsating music and long stretches of silence. Dane Laffrey espouses simplicity for his set design so as not to add distractions, and his costumes favor understated fashion for the women and casual, not-so-stylish attire for the men. In addition to clearly displaying surtitles, Lucy MacKinnon's projection design indicates change of place for some scenes and lighting design by Mark Barton is effective.
I Was Most Alive With You takes a giant step in the direction of inclusiveness for deaf actors in the theater community, following in the footsteps of SpeakEasy Stage Company's acclaimed production of Nina Raine's Tribes (2013). However, Lucas has some work to do to fine-tune his message. As it stands, it can't be heard over the background noise.
*from Sabrina Dennison, Director of Artistic Sign Language: A person who identifies themselves as deaf with a lowercase d' refers to the audiological aspect of not hearing sounds; Deaf with an uppercase D' refers to Deaf people who share the same language (ASL) and culture.
I Was Most Alive With You, performances through June 26, 2016, by Huntington Theatre Company at the Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont Street, Boston, MA; Box Office 617-266-0800 or www.huntingtontheatre.org.
Written and Directed by Craig Lucas; Scenic & Costume Design, Dane Laffrey; Lighting Design, Mark Barton; Sound Design & Original Music, Daniel Kluger; Projection Design, Lucy MacKinnon; Director of Artistic Sign Language, Sabrina Dennison; Associate Director of Artistic Sign Language, Catie Eller; Fight Choreography, Ted Hewlett; Production Stage Manager, Adele Nadine Traub; Stage Manager, Emily F. McMullen
Cast (in order of appearance): Marianna Bassham, Steven Goldstein, Dee Nelson, Russell Harvard, Tad Cooley, Nancy E. Carroll, Gameela Wright; Shadow Interpreters: Joey Caverly, Amelia Hensley, Monique Holt, Christopher Robinson