By Donna Herman
You may have a hard time remembering the name of Craig Lucas’ new play – I Was Most Alive With You. But once you see it, you’ll never forget the play itself. While the subject matter is one that has been fascinating for millennia, the production is startlingly original and creative. Lucas’ two inspirations for this play are the biblical story of Job; in the face of unimaginable and undeserving pain and suffering, how do we have faith and believe in a just and loving God? And the deaf actor Russell Harvard, who he saw in Nina Raine’s Tribes, and pledged to write a show for.
Lucas took both of his inspirations seriously and decided that he wanted I Was Most Alive With You to be fully accessible to both deaf and hearing audiences. Although the central character, the TV writer Ash (Michael Gaston) who represents Job, is hearing, his son Knox (Russell Harvard) is deaf. And his son’s lover Farhad (Tad Cooley) is almost deaf. Therefore, most of the other characters in the play are fluent in American Sign Language (ASL). Funnily enough, the only two who aren’t, are Pleasant (Lisa Emery), Knox’s mother who struggled to teach Knox to speak as a child and doesn’t see why she needs to, and Farhad, who has a cochlear implant and was ostracized by the deaf community for it.
The play unfolds as a kind of series of flashbacks, as Ash and his writing partner Astrid (Marianna Bassham) try to resume their collaboration after a three-and-a-half-month break. They are back in their office for the first time and Ash is clearly agitated, unfocused and nervous. He’s left his son Knox at home alone for the first time since “the accident,”, which worries him, and he can’t concentrate. Astrid tries to get him to focus on some ideas they’ve talked about in the past but it’s not working. He says he just keeps going over and over in his mind what happened, and if he could have done anything different. Astrid comes up with the idea to “say what happened” as a way to get their creative juices flowing. Tell the story.
And so, the twisted, horrific tale comes out. The mountain of woes that begin to drop on the head of recovering alcoholic Ash. The romantic, physical and emotional troubles that beset his recovering alcoholic son Knox, the problems that he has with his functional alcoholic wife Pleasant, and the ill health of his mother Carla (Lois Smith). Add to that the discovery of the financial freefall of his production company and the fear that Knox is suicidal, and it’s no wonder that Ash is identifying so strongly with Job.
Unlike the biblical ending to the Job story, there’s no miraculous reward for all the suffering. But there is a story ending that Ash is able to imagine that he can live with. Which, in this day and age is a win-win. The other win-win in I Was Most Alive With You is the incredible cast. They were all spectacular, but it is easy to understand why Craig Lucas wanted to write something for Russell Howard. His performance as Knox is passionate, committed, raw, and honest. I also have to say that both Michael Ash and Lisa Emery were outstanding. Oh hell, so were Marianna Bassham and Tad Cooley and Gameela Wright. And Lois Smith! I loved Lois Smith! I wanted her to be my grandmother. See, I told you the cast was incredible.
I think the collaboration between director Tyne Rafaeli and director of artistic sign language Sabrina Dennison was very successful. The action flowed seamlessly between past and present, and whether you were following the main cast, the shadow cast or the projections, you didn’t miss anything. The shadow cast was wonderful, the use of sign language by all the actors was fully integrated and harmonious.
But most of all, it is a damn fine play. It keeps you on the edge of your seat, it’s moving, it’s thought provoking, it’s relevant, and I can’t stop thinking about it. If that isn’t worth seeing, nothing is.
I Was Most Alive With You by Craig Lucas; Directed by Tyne Rafaeli; Director of Artistic Sign Language Sabrina Dennison
WITH: Michael Gaston (Ash); Marianna Bassham (Astrid); Lisa Emery (Pleasant); Russell Harvard (Knox); Tad Coley (Farhad); Lois Smith (Carla); Gameela Wright (Mariama); Seth Gore (Shadow Ash); Beth Applebaum (Shadow Astrid); Amelia Hensley (Shadow Pleasant); Harold Foxx (Shadow Knox); Anthony Natale (Shadow Farhad); Kalen Feeney (Shadow Carla); Alexandria Wailes (Shadow Mariama)
Scenic Design by Arnulfo Maldonado; Costume Design by David C. Woolard; Lighting Design by Annie Wiegand; Sound Design by Jane Shaw; Projection Design by Alex Basco Koch; Original Music by Daniel Kluger; Casting by Alaine Alldaffer, CSA; Press Representative, Blake Zidell & Associates; Production Stage Manager, Brett Anders; Assistant Stage Manager, Adele Nadine Traub. Presented by Playwrights Horizons, Artistic Director, Tim Sanford. Through October 14th at 416 West 42nd Street. For tickets call 212-279-4200 or visit www.ticketcentral.com.