Huntington’s ‘I Was Most Alive With You’ Explores Tests of Faith (4.5 Stars)
I Was Most Alive With You – Written and Directed by Craig Lucas; Scenic and Costume Design by Dane Laffrey; Lighting Design by Mark Barton; Projection Design by Lucy Mackinnon. Presented by the Huntington Theatre Company at the Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont St., Boston through June 26.
By Mike Hoban
Alcoholism and drug addiction are always challenging subjects for playwrights to successfully bring to the stage, but Craig Lucas’ latest work, I Was Most Alive With You, is one that absolutely nails the essence of the ripple effect that the malady can have on families. And while the work lacks some of the raw dramatic power of the Huntington’s brilliant alcoholism-themed drama of last year, Come Back Little Sheba, (which copped both the Eliot Norton and IRNE Awards for Best Play of 2015), it is nonetheless a gripping portrayal of the far-reaching effects of addiction. I Was Most Alive With You is also remarkable for bringing four American Sign Language interpreters onstage to shadow the actors (one of the principal characters is deaf, and all of the others sign) and while it is a little distracting initially, it is a game attempt at bringing universal access to the theater.
I Was Most Alive With You is as much about what it means to grow up in deaf in a hearing household as it is to living in a home with both recovering and active alcoholics and addicts. There are a myriad of additional subplots weaved into the narrative (which Lucas manages to tie together by the play’s end), but the overarching theme of the play is how one’s faith holds up when it is put to the test. Not so coincidentally, the Book of Job plays a significant role in the piece.
Comedy writer Ash is a recovering alcoholic married to Pleasant, who is anything but. A belligerent drunk with an acid tongue, her primary purpose appears to be to make everyone around her as uncomfortable as possible, and what better time to showcase her talents than Thanksgiving? One of the sources of her ire comes from Ash’s relationship with his best friend and comedy writing partner, the beautiful (and younger) Astrid, whom Pleasant introduced Ash to years before. Ash and Pleasant’s son Knox is a thirty-ish gay and deaf man who is also a recovering alcoholic/addict. He has not-so-surprisingly moved in with his active substance abuser boyfriend Farhad, whom Knox wants to get sober – something Farhad wants no part of. Knox takes him to the family Thanksgiving dinner to meet his parents for the first time, and suffice to say, it’s not exactly a Waltons Family holiday.
In addition to Pleasant’s incessant string of sarcastic comments, there’s Ash’s mother Carla to add to the cacophony of dysfunction, as she starts right in on Arab-American Farhad with a line of pointed questioning regarding his religious beliefs. As the tension mounts in the room, Carla insists that it’s time for the annual family gratitude sharing ritual, and the family members chime in with various degrees of enthusiasm. When Knox expresses that the three things that he is most grateful for are being deaf, gay and a sober alcoholic, it’s the most heartfelt of all the speeches. But the moment (and his gratitude) is short-lived, as Farhad acts out, setting the stage for a series of events that will sorely test the faith of each of the characters. Ash and Astrid are not so coincidentally working on a parody piece based on the Book of Job, so as the family goes through their individual ordeals, references abound.
If this sounds like a bleak evening of theater, fear not. In fact, there are a number of laugh out loud moments, especially in the first half. The script also makes a very strong case that a real spiritual life is built only through adversity – and there’s plenty to go around for the entire cast in this production. There are some very good performances, beginning with Russell Harvard as Knox. His transition from spiritually grounded and fun-loving to angry and despondent as his demons grab him by the throat is painful to watch, but very effective. The female characters are also especially good, particularly Nancy E. Carroll as the steely but ultimately wise Carla, and Marianna Bassham as Astrid.
There are many scenes that pack a huge emotional wallop, but some may find the multiple subplots (Ash and Pleasant’s crumbling marriage combined with his implied romance with Astrid) to be a little underdeveloped, and that some trimming may be in order for future productions. Still, this is a powerful production, especially for those who can identify with some of the plays themes. For more info, go to: http://www.huntingtontheatre.org/season/2015-2016/i-was-most-alive-with-you/