Monday, September 24, 2018

I Was Most Alive With You

Craig Lucas's new play, I Was Most Alive With You, is impressively ambitious. Performed simultaneously in English and American Sign Language (ASL), with some use of supertitles, it is an extended riff on the biblical story of Job. Ash, a TV writer in his 50s or 60s, and Astrid, his somewhat younger cowriter, decide to use the recent events of Ash's life as the content for their latest project. As they discuss the script, scenes are enacted as they may or may not have occurred in real life. Ash is the Job figure, and much is taken from him.

Marianna Bassham (Astrid), Michael Gaston (Ash),
Russell Harvard (Knox), Tad Cooley (Farhad)
Photo: Joan Marcus

Ash's son, Knox, is Deaf. Although he was brought up to speak and read lips, at the start of the play he will only converse in sign language, even though that leaves his mother, the over-ironically named Pleasant, out of the conversation. Knox is clean and sober (as is Ash). He is in love with Farhad, who is deaf but doesn't sign. (Lucas makes clear that there is a difference between Deaf and deaf, but it goes by quickly. His decision not to define or clarify the distinction makes sense, since this play is written for a Deaf audience as much as--if not more--than a hearing audience, though a bit of explanation might have helped the latter group without hurting the former.) Farhad is a drug user, and although Knox adores him, he will not actually become involved with him until he becomes clean and sober.

Other characters include Ash's mother, Carla, who learned sign language to communicate with Knox, and Mariama, a hearing friend of hers who signs fluently and joins the family on Thanksgiving to translate, mostly for the benefit of Pleasant. The character of Mariama also allows Lucas to add more discussion of religion and loss and belief to the play; unfortunately, she feels much more like a device than a person. But, in truth, only a few of the characters are fleshed out; the others are mouthpieces rather than people.


Ash, as the Job character, has much taken from him: his livelihood, his mother, his money, and his wife. Also, his son Knox loses a hand, which is of course an extra-enormous loss to someone who signs. Knox goes back to drugs and drinking. Farhad, who caused the accident that cost Knox his hand, gets clean and sober. With their roles reversed, soon Farhad is telling Knox that they can't be involved until Knox cleans up his act.

The play ends when Farhad finds Knox in the bathtub, bleeding from having cut his artery right above the bandage on his handless arm. This is the scene as imagined by Astrid and Ash; in truth, we don't find out what happens to Knox. Indeed, we don't even know what happens in the made-up scene, since Knox has also taken a bunch of drugs, and although Farhad has stopped the bleeding, he seems oblivious to the fact that Knox may be slipping into a coma. You see, instead of monitoring Knox, he is quoting the bible at great length, in ASL, from the book of Job, natch.

Lois Smith (Carla), Lisa Emery (Pleasant)
Photo: Joan Marcus

Now, it is extremely possible that I'm taking it all too literally. The biblical quote may be more important than the plot, such as it is, and the fact that Farhad is now signing may also be more important. But here's the thing: I couldn't really concentrate of the whole speech since I was worried about Knox.

This is far from the only example of the show not following through on itself. In the very beginning, Astrid goes to the refrigerator and pulls out a sour carton of milk. We're supposed to understand that no one has used the fridge in a while, and we do. But then she just throws the carton in the trash. She doesn't dump the milk down the sink and wash out the carton; she just tosses it. A big deal? I guess not. But I just kept wondering how she could stand the smell as the milk soured further in the trash can.

Then there's the treatment of ASL. Pleasant and Farhad both seem to learn a rather large chunk of the language in a rather small period of time. Then, when Knox starts signing with one hand, his father understands him with no problem. As it happens, I once took an ASL class. A few weeks in, the teacher hurt his arm and had to wear a sling. When he spoke in ASL to the other teachers, they found it very difficult--and sometimes impossible--to understand him. This isn't a true analogy, since ALS isn't a word-by-word language, but it was as though a speaking person lost the ability to say half the alphabet.

I find this treatment of ASL oddly disrespectful of the language, even while the play is so devoted to it.

Also, in a show where the audience is receiving information through many channels, the direction sometimes fails to make sure the information is received. For example, while a tremendous amount of physical activity is happening in the corner of the stage, a chunk of critical dialogue passes by in supertitles. I only became aware of the dialogue as I caught the tail end.

Oh, and I didn't believe for a second that Pleasant would give her recently clean-and-sober son wine.

[end of spoilers]

I Was Most Alive With You is turbulent and tiring without being affecting. The characters are thin. The plot is awkward. The play keeps telling us that it's significant without letting us feel the significance. It's a message play that fails to effectively express its message by failing to effectively be a play.

Wendy Caster
(press ticket, fifth row)
Show-Score: 65

No comments: