The list of stage roles for Deaf actors is lamentably short. There’s Sarah Norman, a headstrong woman who falls in love with a (hearing) teacher of American Sign Language in 1980’s Children of a Lesser God. Nina Raine’s British family drama, Tribes (2010), focuses on Billy, a young Deaf man raised to reject ASL by his emotionally abusive family. In 2015, Carol Schneider’s Movements of the Soul dramatized the origins of ASL in a brief run off-Broadway.
Other than that, there aren’t a lot of options. (Movies are ahead of theater in that respect: consider the recent Wonderstruck and A Quiet Place.) The Los Angeles–based Deaf West Theatre’s solution has been to revive classics—Big River, Spring Awakening—with mixed casts of Deaf and hearing performers.
Now comes a new work to expand the field. Playwright Craig Lucas’s I Was Most Alive With You is a heart-wrenching tale of addiction, suffering, and forgiveness. It’s a play about a gay Deaf man who undergoes a loss that profoundly affects his ability to connect. His lover, a Deaf Muslim drug user, and his recovering-alcoholic father are intrinsic to his journey to find meaning in life after a grisly tragedy.
More than simply a play about a Deaf character, I Was Most Alive also requires a large number of Deaf actors for theatrical effect and to be more inclusive. It’s designed to always be performed with two casts—a speaking cast and a “shadow cast” of ASL performers—in order to make it equally accessible, at all performances, to Deaf as well as hearing audiences. The dialogue is either spoken English or ASL (with projected subtitles) or SimCom, in which performers do a combination of signing and speaking.
It’s quite something for a playwright—who wants the play to be performed as often as possible—to draw such firm parameters on future productions.
This isn’t just a well-meaning conceit; it’s there in Lucas’s stage directions. The play, he writes, “was created to be performed by Deaf and hearing actors for Deaf and hearing audiences. Any and all future productions must provide full access for hearing and Deaf audiences at all performances by whatever means chosen. A director of artistic sign language must be employed. Any production attempting to forgo these conditions will be in violation of the author’s wishes as well as the licensing agreement.” It’s quite something for a playwright—who wants the play to be performed as often as possible—to draw such firm parameters on future productions.
With its bold theatrical device and Lucas’s ability to blend raw psychology with deep spiritual questions, the piece is bound to have an impact. And in the central role of Knox, our Deaf hero, Lucas and his team have cast Russell Harvard, the phenomenal actor who starred in Tribes and on Broadway in Deaf West’s Spring Awakening. (He also played a Deaf hitman on the first season of Fargo.) Harvard is handsome, funny, and fiery—the sort of actor you can’t take your eyes off.
I Was Most Alive With You
416 West 42nd Street (between Dyer and Ninth Avenues), Hell’s Kitchen
Through Sunday, October 14