Whatever you do when you go to see Craig Lucas’ I Was Most Alive With You, look up—and keep looking up.
The staging, cleverly designed by Arnulfo Maldonado at Playwrights Horizons, has two levels. On the conventional level with the audience are the play’s group of speaking actors, although these actors periodically use American Sign Language (ASL).
On an upper level, with a wall of bleached-out spines of play scripts behind them, a mirroring group of deaf actors perform echoes of the movements of their corresponding characters below, and sign them. A spokesperson for the show told The Daily Beast: “For deaf eyes, ASL needs as neutral a background as possible. But the design team wanted the shadows in the same world, hence that design choice and necessity.”
Director Tyne Rafeli skillfully ensures this striking visual adds to the play and our understanding of it. The deaf actors loom over the speaking actors not just as practical, signing foils, but also as questioning consciences, their extra, sometimes better selves, and a wry Greek chorus.
Of the excellent speaking and signing cast, Ash (Michael Gaston; ‘shadow’ Seth Gore) and Astrid (Marianna Bassham; ‘shadow’ Beth Applebaum) are two writers, whose latest project we are watching—the story of them, the story of their writing and friendship and relationship, and the story of Ash’s deaf son Knox (the terrific Russell Harvard; his equally excellent ‘shadow’ is Harold Foxx), a recovering drug and alcohol addict, and his relationship with another drug addict, Farhad (Tad Cooley; ‘shadow' Anthony Natale) who has a cochlear implant and vestigial hearing on one side.
In a confessional essay in the program, Lucas reveals that the inspiration for the play was his own experience of addiction and recovery: “My own abuse of alcohol and drugs brought me to my knees and caused so much suffering for the people who loved me.”
He also writes, even before the script gets underway, “Despair is anti-dramatic. Feeling sorry for oneself is always the wrong choice. If we ask anything of theater, it is to show how other human beings have faced insurmountable obstacles. The characters in this narrative, confronted with losses they never anticipated or wished for, must find the highest road at all times. Even a choice to end one’s life is reaching toward improvement. It cannot be otherwise.”
Some with an acquaintance of suicide may disagree with that. But that tone of rhetorical certainty and zeal borne of experiencing life’s roughest contours informs Lucas’ play.
The set is multi-purpose: a living room that is many living rooms, both Ash and Astrid’s workspace, and all the settings they summon up the play. The play itself is not just a play about a group of characters tackling addiction, love, and parental and other responsibilities, but also a play about storytelling itself.
We don’t just watch Ash wrestling with the responsibility of taking care of his son, but how he crafts that into a story. He and Astrid question their reactions to events that have already unfolded.
Knox’s strength and endurance is the tragic, heroic key to the story. There will be no plot spoilers here, but he undergoes a series of physical and emotional traumas that take him to the edge. Harvard’s performance is witty, heartbreaking, and intense. “I don’t pray for God to hear me, I pray to be able to hear the small still voice deep inside, my best self, mostly hidden, but always there,” he tells us. “If I ever pick up another drink, my disease will kill that voice for good.”
Knox says: “I’m grateful for my family…And for two, no, three things I used to think weren’t gifts at all: Deafness…Being gay…Addiction…They are gifts…Each brought me great clarity.”
Lisa Emery (‘shadow’ Amelia Hensley) is Pleasant, Knox’s estranged, absent mother. She is both very funny and very damaged. Lois Smith (‘shadow’ Kalen Feeney) plays Ash’s mischievous, all-knowing mother Carla, the head of the studio that ensures his and Astrid’s work is produced, and Gameela Wright (‘shadow’ Alexandria Wailes) is Mariama, a steadfast Jehovah’s Witness who is probably the least intrusive Jehovah’s Witness you will ever encounter.
The idea of Job may be most heavily inscribed on to Knox, but all the characters are sorely tested by the end. Tonally, the story bounces between the biblical, metaphorical, and everyday.
Lucas’ writing is gilded in the language of therapy and recovery, which can sound didactic and overwrought, especially when added to the trickiness of the play’s construction. But it is also welcomingly waspish, like the moment where Knox and Farhad are asked how they met. A club, one says. A sex club says the other.
The play, for all its meta-parlor games, feels sharpest and most humane when its characters directly connect as with the two men trying to figure out how and if they can have a healthy relationship (even though the play loses sight of Farhad at a critical moment in his own recovery).
We see relationships unfurl and flair, as with a moving encounter between Carla and Pleasant, or when Astrid tries to shamelessly, angrily guilt-trip Knox out of his depression using his own father as bait.
The glancing reference to Guiding Light (in the retinue of Ash and Astrid’s projects) reminded this critic of Other People, the soap opera Lucas created for one of his actor-characters in Longtime Companion (1989), the first truly mainstream AIDS-themed movie. In this play, too, are elements of soap opera—wild plot twists, dramatic entrances and exits, cliffhangers—that break through the play’s denser intent.
In all its characters we see the questing of Lucas, the writer and also the character in his own drama, marshaling his own set of conflicting memories of past traumas as well as the experiences of loved ones, and trying to set them to a slippery dramatic order.
Whatever recovery he has achieved, and whatever peace his loved ones have, there is—in the final seconds of the play—still room left for a nail-biting ambiguity. Addiction and recovery, Lucas wants us to finally know, is a brutal matter of life or death.
I Was Most Alive With You is at Playwrights Horizons, NYC, until October 14. Book here.