Russell Harvard and Nancy E. Carroll in I Was Most Alive With You, written and directed by Craig Lucas, at the Huntington Theatre.
Russell Harvard and Nancy E. Carroll in I Was Most Alive With You, written and directed by Craig Lucas, at the Huntington Theatre.
(© T. Charles Erickson)

Craig Lucas hits all the hot buttons in his new play, I Was Most Alive With You. While the underlying theme, based on the biblical Book of Job, questions the depth of a man's faith after every comfort is stripped from him, the contemporary subjects of drug abuse, alcoholism, marital relationships, politically correct religious beliefs, and family tensions are also folded in. As if they were characters in a morality play, each person on stage is given little development beyond symbolizing one of the issues.

Lucas, who also directs the play's world premiere by the Huntington Theatre at Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts, complicates the presentation by choosing to deliver his message through both spoken dialogue and American Sign Language (ASL). A quartet of actor-translators, in addition to the members of the cast, weave in and out of the action to emphasize the plight of the central character, Knox, a deaf, gay man who is a recovering drug and alcohol addict. The mix is both rich and confusing, often leaving viewers adrift in a maelstrom of sensations and emotions in following the many plots. A skewed timeline adds to the difficulties, starting in the present but flashing back to scenes from the past. The dialogue projected above the stage, along with video depictions of certain events and mental states, serves as further distractions.

Knox is in love with Farhad, a Muslim orphan who, like him, is addicted to drugs and alcohol. Farhad is somewhat uncontrollable with a confrontational manner of self-protection, in contrast to the orderly life of Knox's family. Knox brings Farhad home for Thanksgiving to meet his grandmother, Carla, a convert to Judaism and a cancer patient; his mother, Pleasant, a militant Christian who is an alcoholic simmering with discontent, and his father, Ash, a recovering alcoholic and television writer. Ash is conflicted by his love for his writing partner, Astrid, who also happens to be Knox's best friend. Mariama, Carla's nurse, contributes her tragic family story as well.

One point of family contention is the use of ASL by the family, in support of Knox. Pleasant has refused to learn sign language, believing that Knox must learn to live in a speaking world; however, the rest of the family communicates in ASL as well as with spoken word.

Lucas follows the trajectory of the biblical story by reversing Knox's determination to recover, putting him in danger and also removing the family and financial supports for Ash, making it hard to understand which of them mirrors Job. If it were not for the marvelous delving of the acting ensemble into the possibilities of the thinly written portraits, the audience would have little comfort or sympathy for the characters.

Russell Harvard as Knox, speaking and signing to let us know his feelings, is passionate in his gratitude for his blessings, then equally commanding in his confrontation with an unseen presence. Marianna Bassham makes Astrid into a lively companion: optimistic, loving, and selfless. Steven Goldstein as Ash struggles with his loveless marriage, the feelings for Astrid, and his relationship with his son. Tad Cooley is mesmerizing in his portrayal of Farhad, his turn-around, and in his conflicted relationship with Knox. As Pleasant, Dee Nelson quivers with the self-disgust of a mother who has failed to help her son. Nancy C. Carroll makes Carla into a stoic voice of reason in this self-absorbed family. The quartet of "shadow interpreters," as Lucas calls them — Joey Caverly, Amelia Hensley, Monique Holt, and Christopher Robinson — use more than the gestures of sign language to convey their absorption into their alter egos; they emote with their bodies as well.

Lucas has constructed a play with a progression of changes for each character, but he fails to motivate the complications that befall them. At the end I Was Most Alive With You leaves you with too many unanswered questions and unsettled characters.