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I Was Most Alive with You

All good ideas come from the book — Astrid, the television script writer and a major character in I Was Most Alive With You.
I Was Most Alive with You
L-R Michael Gaston (Ash), Lisa Emery (Pleasant), Russell Harvard (Knox), and their respective shadows above.
The Book of Job, cited above as the source of all good ideas, is undoubtedly the inspirational bedrock of Craig Lucas's I Was Most Alive With You. But so was actor Russell Harvard who's deaf, fluent in lip reading, ASL (American Sign Language) and with some speaking capability. Lucas was so moved by his performance as the pivotal character in Nina Raines' terrific Tribes that he determined to write a play that would again put Harvard at its center.

I Was Most Alive is thus doubly inspired: Its story line is linked to that biblical good idea generator known to students of the Torah, Bible and the Koran. And its Job-like center is a character named Knox played by Harvard — again signing, speaking, lipreading, and here also recovering substance abuser.

Actually you can double those inspirational sources. Lucas has factored in his own struggles with addiction and mission to further efforts to make the theater more accessible for both hearing impaired actors and audiences— as Children of a Lesser God, Spring Awakening and Tribes did.

I Am Most Alive With You does manage to make good on this ambitious mission. It interweaves the underlying Book of Job theme — can you remain faithful even when forced to endure extreme emotional, physical and financial disasters— with contemporary issues of drug abuse, alcoholism, relationship tensions and miscommunication.

The script is designed to be performed for deaf and hearing audiences. This admirable intent is achieved by specifying that the dialogue is to be delivered in a mix of spoken words and American Sign Language — the rendering of the former to be accompanied by a shadow cast of signers; the latter via translations projected on screens above the speaking actors.

This unusual casting and text delivery form makes for a provocative, refreshingly new if not fully satisfyig theatrical experience. The leading actor's deafness and its effect on everyone else in his life underscores the difficulties of being really heard even by those closest to us. However, this format has the downside of having us more taken with the innovative way the story is presented, than fully losing ourselves in it.

Still, this production does have the benefit of a fine ensemble of actors. Under Tyne Rafaell's direction they make the innovative form work pretty well and the non-linear structure fairly easy to follow. Rafaell has also assembled a fine crafts team, which includes original music by Daniel Kluger who also did vital work in Tribes.

The intricate struggles of the play's California based family are framed by a play-within-a-play scenario, which is achieved by casting two key characters — Ash and Astrid— as a successful TV series writing team. The Book of Job story they're pitching flashes us back to the main story of which the two writers are an integral part.

The first of the flashback scenes takes us to a Thanksgiving dinner at the home of family matriarch Carla (Lois Smith). We now see Ash, as Carla's son and also a recovered alcoholic. He's married to the slyly misnamed Pleasant (Lisa Emery), and father of the deaf Knox. Ash signs with Knox but Pleasant doesn't since she believes he must get along in a speaking world.

That dinner starts agreeably enough with variously expressed thanks for what all gathered there perceive as gifts. The signed expression of gratitude by the deaf Knox (Russell Harvard) covers not just gratitude for his family but three other things he used to think weren't gifts at all: deafness, being gay, addiction. As he explains, "Each brought to me great clarity."

Despite the congeniality called for by the holiday, there are plenty of past and current interpersonal tensions brought to the table. And, given the physical, cultural and faith based difference of those present there's no shortage of viewpoints to disagree, miscommunicate and philosophize about: young, middle-aged, old. . . gay, straight. . .addicted, sober. .speaking in ASL or word language with the deaf. . . Muslim (Tad Cooley's Farhad,Knox's Muslim raised but now secular, drug using young lover), Jewish (Carla and Knox), Jehovah's Witness (Gameela Wright's Marianna, the ailing Carla's warm-hearted nurse), Atheist (Lisa Emery's acerbic Pleasant and Astrid).

Other scenes see the darker aspects of that Thanksgiving dinner are further elaborated on .Eeveryone's belief system is tested (Carla is terminally ill, Ash and Pleasant's marriage collapses)— but it's a terrible accident that makes Knox the play's true Job.

While Harvard once again displays his ability to convey his emotional highs and lows whether speaking or signing, it bears repeating to say the entire cast deserves a hand.

Michael Gaston and Lisa Emery are stand-outs as Knox's parents. Emery is initially quite funny in the first act, but her resilience too is heartbreakingly challenged. The unfailingly superb Lois Smith once again distinguishes herself as the outspoken grandmother dealing with financial ruin as well as terminal illness.

Rounding out the characters searching for meaning and connection, are Marianna Bassham as Astrid who Pleasant suspects is more than Ash's best friend and writing partner and Gameela Wright as the empathetic nurse Mariama. Tad Cooley makes a strong impression as Knox's young lover Farhad who's also deaf but a lip reader and still using drugs.

Of course these seven actors represent just half the cast since the main players never appear on stage without their signing interpreters a.k.a. "shadow cast." These interpreters deserve more than ASL signer credits since, thanks to Director of Artistic Sign Language Sabrina Dennison, they go beyond using signing gestures but also tanslate their alter egos' emotions with their whole bodies.

That said, Arnulfo Maldonado has wisely included an upstage balcony for the shadow cast. This avoids their cluttering up the stage and distracting the audience. Unfortunately the scenes in which the hearing actors use sign language that are translated with surtitles by projectionist Alex Basco Koch do tend interrupt the flow for the viewers, especially for anyone with less than 20/20 vision.

Intriguing as this format is and provocative as the questions raised about coping with the Job-like trials looming over our daily lives are, Mr. Lucas has pushed an awful lot of buttons. Ultimately, I Was Most Alive With You is too depressing and relentlessly relevant — an interesting and idea rich experiment that fails to be out and out memorable.

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I Was Most Alive with You by Craig Lucas
Directed by Tyne Rafae;;i
Cast: Marianna Bassham as Astrid, Tad Cooley as Farhad, Lisa Emery as Pleasant, Michael Gaston as Ash; Russell Harvard as Knox, Lois Smith as Carla, Gameela Wright as Mariama.
The shadow cast: Beth Applebaum, Kalen Feeney, Harold Foxx, Seth Gore, Amelia Hensley, Anthony Natale
Sets: Arnulfo Maldonado
Costumes:David C. Woolard
Lights: Annie Wiegand
Projections:Alex Basco Koch
Original Music: Daniel Kluger
Sound: Jane Shaw
Stage Manager: Brett Anders
Running Time: 2 hours plus a 10 minute intermission
Playwrights Horizons Main Stage 416 West 42nd Street
From 9/01/18; opening 9/24/18; closing 10/14/18.
Tue-Wed 7:00 PM, Thu-Fri 8:00 PM, Sat 2:30 and 8:00 PM,Sun 2:30 and 7:30 PM
Reviewed by Elyse sommer 9/19/18

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