Huntington's "Most Alive": Drama with a Capital D

The Cast of "I Was Most Alive with You"
(photo:  T. Charles Erickson)

Choices in life are at the center of the remarkable new play by Craig Lucas, I Was Most Alive with You, currently being given its world premiere by the Huntington Theatre Company. In this unforgettable work, the audience must also make choices, but more about this later. Lucas, renowned for past theatrical works such as Prelude to a Kiss, Reckless, Light in the Piazza and American in Paris, the screenplay for Longtime Companion, and the libretto for the opera Two Boys, is a graduate of Boston University with a BA in theater and creative writing. His careers include that of an actor, playwright, screenplay writer and, with this production, director. His varied background informs and transforms this latest effort which both lives up to one's expectations and exceeds them, creating what can truly be described as unique. “Unique” is an often misused term, frequently expressed as one of degree, as in “more unique” or “most unique”. Here one may accurately ascribe this adjective to this play, as it is unquestionably and undeniably “one of a kind”. For starters, the entire work is performed by an exquisite company of seven actors, while simultaneously being signed (in American Sign Language, or ASL) by an equally fine troupe of avatars who are also performing, acting, rather than only signing. What results is an immersive experience unlike any other you've ever seen. Or heard.

As many plays have in the history of theater, this one begins with memories of a family gathering for a holiday celebration, namely Thanksgiving dinner. Knox (Russell Harvard) states that he is grateful for three things he formerly thought were curses: being deaf, being gay and being an alcoholic. While society as a whole might view them as disabling, he sees them as gifts. The enduring analogy for his apparent trials and tribulations is one of the oldest examples of storytelling, the suffering visited upon Job (which Lucas pointedly notes is part of Jewish, Muslim and Christian heritage, all conveniently represented on stage). The reaction of the righteous to the woes inflicted upon them may be wisdom or may be despair. In the case of a person who is hearing-impaired, she or he might use the lowercase 'd' to refer to being deaf as the audiological fact of not hearing sounds, whereas others who share this challenge choose to self-describe with an uppercase 'D', refering to Deaf people who share the same language (ASL) and culture. This was the choice dealt with in the 2010 play by Nina Raine, Tribes , which, not coincidentally, was seen by Lucas, who decided to write his play specifically for its amazing actor, the aforementioned Harvard. In Lucas' play, there's drama and there's Drama, just as there are deaf people and a Deaf community. And, as is the case often with syntax, there's much more to it than whether it's expressed in lower or upper case.

The characters alludes to this as another choice, but more obliquely than in the decidedly more political realm of Tribes. Knox brings home a guy who has been living with him, Farhad (Tad Cooley), a heavy drug user who was recently homeless. Assembled for the traditional holiday dinner are Knox's father, Ash (Steven Goldstein), Ash's wife Pleasant (Dee Nelson), Knox's grandmother Carla (Nancy E. Carroll), Ash's best friend and co-writer Astrid (Marianna Bassham), and Carla's companion Mariama (Gameela Wright). The rest of the cast includes four wondrous “shadow interpreters”, Joey Caverly, Amelia Hensley, Monique Holt and Christopher Robinson.

But Lucas isn't basically writing about deafness, but about what it means to believe in other people and the choice for life even in one's darkest moments. The playwright has stated that he intended this work to be a comedy, a drama, and a tragedy, in the sense of “ bad things happening to people”; if “at enough distance, it's comical..closer to the characters, it's drama...insert yourself wholly into...the characters' flaws, it becomes tragedy”. As the program quotes Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr): “humor is, in fact, a prelude to faith; and laughter is the beginning of prayer. To meet the disappointments and frustrations of life, the irrationalities and contingencies, with laughter, is a high form of wisdom”. At one point in the play, Goldstein's character refers to faith as what bridges the gap between what you know and what you feel. As one final tragedy befalls, the question arises as to what is left to know or to feel when one is deprived of a hitherto vital form of human communication and connection.

The cast, all eleven of them, are flawless, as are the technical contributions. The intentionally monochromatic Set and appropriate Costume Design by Dane Laffrey provide the perfect focus needed, as do the Lighting Design by Mark Barton, Composition and Sound Design by Daniel Kluger, and Projection Design by Lucy MacKinnon. If one were to single out especially memorable elements, they would have to include the ingenious set that complements but never distracts, the way that Carroll has with tossing off a barbed one-liner, and of course the phenomenal Harvard at the core of the play. Theatergoers are continually confronted in this work with choices: whom to watch, whom to listen to, when blessed with a cornucopia of duplicate performances. (The analogy limps, of course, as these are people not puppets, but one is reminded of Avenue Q, in which, after a very brief period, one forgets where the actors end and their alter egos begin). Close attention must be paid, especially at the close of Act One, when a deluge of plot points cascades, more Noah-like than Job-like.

The expressed intent of the production is to ignite a conversation about the play, which is, after all, what theater is all about. By and large, Lucas is hugely successful. This may develop into his finest play; it's certainly his most religious. One could hope for more back stories for some of the characters (when did we last ask a play to be longer?). But this first exposure to a live audience will no doubt help shape its future form, and it will certainly have a future in the theater. As was the case with that trilogy of intention (comedy, drama and tragedy in one), this play is by turns promising, engrossing, fabulous, frustrating and disturbing, at one and the same time a desperate and life-affirming, truly enthralling achievement. Without divulging any spoilers, suffice it to say that there are echoes of the short story The Lady, or the Tiger?, in that each audience member is called upon to provide some resolution, taking on a much more active role than one is used to in live theater. And that's also when theater is most alive with us.

Craig Lucas, we hear you.

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