The Huntington Theatre Company is winding down its season with one of the most ambitious, exciting world premieres to play Boston this year.
I Was Most Alive With You is the newest play by Craig Lucas, three-time Tony Award nominee for An American in Paris, The Light in the Piazza, and Prelude to a Kiss, for which he was also a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.
I Was Most Alive With You is the very first play ever written for an integrated cast of Deaf/deaf/hard-of-hearing and hearing actors at a regional theater. The play centers on Knox, a deaf, gay alcoholic who—to put it mildly—has not had it easy. After a tragic accident, Knox is forced—in what feels like the trials of Job—to once again overcome devastating odds.
The role of Knox was written for actor Russell Harvard after Lucas saw him off-Broadway in Tribes, a performance that earned him a Theater World Award and nominations for Drama League, Outer Critics Circle, and Lucille Lortel Awards. Well-known for his performances in There Will Be Blood and TV’s Fargo, Harvard recently made his Broadway debut in the Tony-nominated revival of Spring Awakening.
I sat down with Harvard during a recent break from rehearsal, where we talked about the significance of this world premiere, working with Craig Lucas, and having a role written just for him. The conversation was interpreted by Steven Nugent.
I saw you in Tribes in LA at the Mark Taper Forum. You were so electrifying and vulnerable and unforgettable, so it’s an honor to talk to you.
Oh, thank you! In that theater, we really had to turn up our volume. There were like 250 seats and most of the time we didn’t really feel like we were acting. Well, compared to what I did in New York, which was much smaller and more intimate. I wish you had seen it in New York.
The intimacy was so intact, though. It didn’t seem like you guys were playing to a crowd. It looked like the audience was just eavesdropping on that house.
It’s funny, because we had one note from the director, but it wasn’t for me, it was for all of the hearing actors who were speaking too low. I was projecting way up high, speaking really loudly and he was like “Russell, bravo! Wow! I couldn’t hear a thing!” That felt really great.
I Was Most Alive With You is being called the first new play written specifically for an integrated cast of deaf actors, hard-of-hearing actors, etc. What exactly does that mean?
It means that it’s fully accessible. Hearing people will always hear the lines or see the actions, and at the same time they can enjoy watching the shadow interpreters that are signing the words of the main characters. Any deaf people that come watch the show will simply have to follow the shadow interpreters. There is no specific date or limited shows for the deaf audience to come; it can be any time. There’s never been any other production that has ever done this. It’s very revolutionary.
Other than this being an incredible opportunity for deaf actors and audience members, on a broader scale, what greater significance do you think this play has culturally?
I’m hopeful that other theater companies are going to see this as a model. It doesn’t necessarily have to be shadow interpreters that are signing, it can be the other way around: It can be a deaf actor that’s playing a main character role and then a hearing actor that’s speaking, which was very successful when we did it with Spring Awakening. Very successful. It was so beautiful to be able to watch and hear everything at the same time. I’m hoping that other productions can follow suit.
I didn’t get to see Spring Awakening, but everyone I know that did just raved about it.
I know. One fan, who is also a friend of mine, saw it like 27 times.
Do you have plans to perform with the cast at the Tony Awards?
They’ve told me to keep it quiet, but I’m hoping. We’ve already filmed it and had it preserved at the Lincoln Center Library, so you could go watch it. We will tour in 2017-2018. There are four adult actors in Spring Awakening, but they might reduce it to two. I don’t know. It is going to be touring, and hopefully if I’m not busy, I would absolutely love to go back to it, but I really want to play one of the kids. I told the director [Michael Arden], I was like, “If you don’t mind, can I play one of the kids? I know that there are some very tall young guys out there, so I’m sure I could pass.” He was like, “Yeah, but a very developed one.”
That’s what I said! I was like, come on, I’ll stop eating, whatever I have to do.
I must imagine that Marlee Matlin has been a great influence on you as an actor. What was it like to work with her on Spring Awakening?
Oh, yeah. Absolutely. She and I had worked together in the past, on CSI: NY, which is when I first met her. She’s one of the coolest chicks I’ve ever met. She has no filter whatsoever. She will reveal absolutely everything at all times, she’s completely open, which kind of makes it easier to talk with her and work with her. When I found out that we were going to be working together again on Spring Awakening, I met her and it was just like meeting her all over again for the first time. I was kind of shy, kind of like, “Oh, hey, hey how are you,” just short conversational pieces. Then when we actually got near opening night we turned into the best of friends. We instantly clicked and supported each other. Everyone else had already been doing the play and we were the new kids on the block and so we kind of felt like “Oh, let’s take care of each other and watch each other’s back.” It was great. She’s like a model for a deaf actor. Really fun to work with.
The role of Knox was written for you. What does that feel like?
A big deal. I just want to make Craig proud. I think it’s just so clever that he has included all of the diversity that he has into this show so that everyone out there can relate. My partner [in the play], he’s Lebanese-Islamic, there’s a Jehovah’s Witness, a Christian. Several Jewish people. Jewish Buddhists. It’s just so diverse. It’s so universal. There’s no one that’s going to feel “I don’t get it.” Everybody’s going to relate to the show.
There is a lot of religion that courses through this play, and it’s a big part of most of the characters. But what is the play actually saying about God?
Good question. I think, from the beginning, I learned as a Jewish person, the word “God” is more that God is in everything, exists in everything—me, you, nature—in everything. It’s not that God is an entity, a creator that exists in the sky. I think a Christian person uses God more as an entity that you relate to. I think that the frustrations, the hardships I experience [in the play] and go through, are a test from the universe: The universe is testing my patience, my knowledge; it’s testing how far I am willing to go.
What is it like to have Craig Lucas as the playwright and director?
It’s kind of like a gift on top of a gift. He’s so much fun. He’s always so open and approachable. He has no filter, either. He will share anything A to Z with you. Just today, he told me that he had a masseuse last night that just rocked his world. He’ll tell you anything. No filter, no secrets. For him to pick up on all the different stories and all the different experiences he’s had and apply them to this show is really also invaluable and helpful. His guidance in the show is really amazing. I think that we’re all extremely fortunate to be a part of this. I can’t wait to see the final, finished product.
At the end of the story of Job, he is restored; he regains his health and riches. The future of Knox is left a question mark.
Right. For me, I have an idea in my own head of where Knox is going, what he is going to do. I don’t want to tell the audience or you or anyone else, but people will be questioning a great deal, wondering what on earth just happened. I think that something hopeful comes out. I think there is hope there. That’s what I think. Something good is going to come out of something seemingly bad. But, as an audience member watching, they may not sense that until the very end and then they think, “Okay, all of the problems, all of the life issues that he’s been having, there is a solution.” There is a way that things can be better, according to this play.
I WAS MOST ALIVE WITH YOU. RUNS 5.27-6.26 AT THE HUNTINGTON THEATRE COMPANY, 527 TREMONT ST., BOSTON. HUNTINGTONTHEATRE.ORG