A struggle to communicate, cope in ‘I Was Most Alive With You’
Job, that famously beleaguered biblical figure, has been getting quite a workout in Boston theater lately.
First, in April, he proved to be the answer to a divine puzzle in Israeli Stage’s production of Anat Gov’s comedy “Oh God,’’ in which the Supreme Being undergoes treatment by a psychotherapist. God’s depressive malaise, it turned out, was connected to the unresolved guilt he felt for allowing so many ordeals to be dumped upon poor Job’s head back in the day.
Now comes a very different, more somber play that also draws inspiration from the story of Job and his many earthly trials. Written and directed by Craig Lucas at Huntington Theatre Company, “I Was Most Alive With You’’ is an intricate, frequently absorbing, occasionally sluggish new drama about the struggles of a Southern California family to cope and to communicate when adversity hits, and hits, and hits again.
Communicating is a multilayered concept in this family, and in this world-premiere production, too. The play was created, Lucas says in an author’s note to the script, to be performed for deaf and hearing audiences, and his uniformly strong cast at the Huntington includes a deaf actor in a leading role and a hard-of-hearing actor in another key part. The play’s dialogue is rendered through a combination of spoken word and American Sign Language, the latter communicated both by cast members and by “shadow interpreters,’’ with translations projected on surtitles.
It makes for a crowded and busy stage, but the salubrious effect is to give both types of expression — spoken word and sign — equal weight. More broadly, this innovative marriage of form and content makes us think anew about who gets heard in our culture, and how, and what it means to be truly heard.
The action of the play, unfolding from Thanksgiving 2010 to the spring of 2011, revolves around Knox (Russell Harvard), who is gay, deaf, and in recovery from alcohol and drug abuse. Raised Jewish, Knox has brought home Farhad (Tad Cooley), who is deaf, of Lebanese descent, and was raised as a Muslim. It’s soon clear that the relationship between Knox and Farhad, an active drug user prone to erratic behavior, poses a threat to Knox’s hard-won, precarious sobriety.
Also on hand at the charged family gathering are Knox’s parents, Ash (Steven Goldstein), a recovering alcoholic, and Pleasant (Dee Nelson), who is anything but. She’s a drinker whose remarks range from impolitic to downright combative. (Ash knows how to sign, but Pleasant never learned, and she is both defiant about it and bitter at the distance it has created between her and her son. “I’ve been put on a scaffold,’’ she complains. “With a red A-S-L embroidered on my bodice.’’)
Rounding out the roster are Ash’s wealthy, ailing mother, Carla (Nancy E. Carroll); her nurse, Mariama (Gameela Wright); and Astrid (Marianna Bassham), Ash’s writing partner on a long-running TV series, with whom he is not-so-secretly in love. The stage is set for an Albee-esque reopening of old grievances and a new revelation or two, followed by a serious — and symbolically freighted — accident that befalls one of the main characters.
Lucas is quite successful at conjuring an elegiac mood as he delivers what is, in part, a meditation on faith in all its forms, punctuated by quotations from the Book of Job. The playwright-director demonstrates laudable trust in the power that silence and stillness can bring to a scene, though there are times when one wishes for more dramatic intensity.
As he showed in his mysterious “Prelude to a Kiss’’ (presented at the Huntington in 2010), Lucas is skilled at constructing a metaphysical framework that can contain and illuminate the deepest human dilemmas, such as how we sustain love, both as an emotion and an act of volition. The tradeoff in his new play is a certain thinness to the characterizations.
On balance, however, “I Was Most Alive With You’’ is a rewarding experience. (The sound design and original music by Daniel Kluger adds an especially vital dimension.) There have been signs that at least some in the theater community are intent on capturing the experiences of deaf people while also making dramas and musicals accessible to deaf theatergoers. Nina Raine's “Tribes,’’ presented three years ago at Boston’s SpeakEasy Stage Company, focused on the changes in the life of a deaf young man whose family had refused to learn sign language. Deaf West Theatre’s acclaimed Broadway revival of “Spring Awakening,’’ which united deaf and hearing actors, is competing Sunday night for three Tony Awards, including best revival of a musical.
“I Was Most Alive With You’’ is a significant addition to that growing body of work.
I WAS MOST ALIVE WITH YOU
Written and directed by Craig Lucas. Presented by Huntington Theatre Company. At Wimberly Theatre, Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts, through June 26. Tickets: 617-266-0800, www.huntingtontheatre.org