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New York City Theater

"I Was Most Alive With You"
Playwrights Horizons

“Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?” asks a somewhat snippy God in the Book of Job. Testing Job’s faith by visiting afflictions on that pious, uncomprehending human, God’s challenges are unanswerable.  Still . . . why load Job with so many troubles even though he’s rewarded after the trials are over?

Out of these and other questions, Craig Lucas has fashioned “I Was Most Alive With You,” a sometimes powerful, sometimes overloaded drama told by both hearing and deaf actors. That takes explaining. While the mostly hearing actors sign and speak, non-hearing actors on a raised catwalk above them, dressed similarly as their counterparts, simultaneously mimic dialogue using American Sign Language (ASL).

“The one thing that makes us human,” we’re told at the start, is “storytelling.”  It’s not an advice Lucas takes to heart – he has several actions going at once -- but it does dictate the complex drama’s structure of tales within a tale. We’re introduced to two writers, Ash and Astrid, slaving over a TV script. (He’s Jewish, she’s an atheist. Other characters form a mosaic: lapsed Protestant, Muslim, Jehovah’s Witness.)

As they bat around ideas, Ash and Astrid recall a disastrous Thanksgiving dinner, that always fraught event, to be used as raw material for their script. That was when Ash’s son, Knox, introduced his family to his lover, Farhad. It was, as well, the night of a near-fatal car accident, particularly traumatic for Knox.

Meanwhile, everyone wrestles with profound questions of communication and faith, while trying to accept their afflictions. (“Faith doesn’t prevent suffering; it prevents man from thinking he’s God.”) The snake in the grass is the ironically named Pleasant, Ash’s wife and Knox’s adoptive mother. Refusing to use ASL, she’s a pariah. Her immediate antagonist is Carla, Ash’s mother, dying of cancer. How these lives clash, especially within the framework of the Knox/Farhad story, drives the evening.

Directed with clarity and feeling by Tyne Rafaeli, the cast is impeccable. Led by the sensitive Russell Harvard as Knox, it features the great Lois Smith as Carla, Michael Gaston as the conflicted Ash, Marianna Bassham as the pragmatic Astrid, Lisa Emery as the dyspeptic Pleasant, Tad Cooley as the distressed Farhad and Gameela Wright as the sympathetic Mariama, a woman whose faith persists in the face of her son’s tragic fate. Their non-hearing shadow figures’ use of ASL, directed by Sabrina Dennison, is beautifully balletic.

All the characters try to find their place, try to find ways of communicating not only with each other but with God. It may be a cliché, but, in the end, as this wise, moving  play shows, it’s love that makes us both human and humble in the face of unfathomable vastness. We are all powerless, says Astrid. We are all Job.

--David A. Rosenberg
October 7, 2018

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