Deaf West is the first professional resident Sign Language Theatre in the western half of the United States. Since 1991, they have produced productions in both ASL and English with deaf and hearing actors. In this production, the two characters each have two actors -- one to act as the physical character and another to serve as their speaking voice. “The Solid Life Of Sugar Water” is the latest production from the company, written by Jack Thorne and directed by Randee Trabitz.
Alice (played by Sandra Mae Frank and voiced by Natalie Camunas) and Phil (played by Tad Cooley and voiced by Nick Apostolina) are a couple that bounce between good and bad memories of their time together. From meeting in a postal office to their sex lives to losing their child. The short play manages to cover a lot of ground in understanding the couple’s history and dynamics. Originally, Alice is deaf and Phil is hearing, but in this production both characters are deaf.
The power in this play comes more from the physical story than the writing. There is a strong emphasis on the couple’s physical relationship in both the writing and production. Much of the play features graphic descriptions of their sexual life in a very frank and desexualized way. It is sometimes uncomfortable, to learn so many intimate details about these strangers, but also incredibly revealing about the unsexy side of love. The addition of ASL makes these discussions even more interesting; the way the actors bring the pillow talk of ASL to life is enthralling and manages to add so much to the spoken dialogue.
One of the most powerful scenes is a split stage scenario in which the wife goes through labor while the husband is describing one of their sexual encounters. The visceral nature of their individual pain and pleasure is fascinating.
The thematic connection to physicalization combined with the fact that the voices and bodies of the characters are separate creates an interesting dynamic to watch. One could pay attention to both the voice and body of the character individually and still completely understand the play.
My only qualms with the play have to do with the writing. Thorne is a gifted playwright (and a Tony Award winner) but there were some things in the dialogue of the piece I couldn’t seem to shake.
For one, we enter knowing that the couple has lost their child. The way the script seems to portray it, though, makes it feel as if it is some sort of reveal. We dance dangerously close to discussing it only to jump back in time to better memories. It takes about half of the play to get to the discussion. That may have been intentional, as a way to show that they are not ready to bring it up yet, but it felt more like the audience was waiting for some payoff that they already knew.
It also felt as though we knew more about Phil than Alice. Phil has a whole monologue about his love for Kirk Douglas when they are on a date at the movies and we hear a lot about his personality tendencies and idiosyncrasies. We get a little bit about Alice as Phil looks through her music library. But we mainly hear about her as a sexual object, as his wife, as someone who talked about her past relationships on dates, and who has lost a child. I longed to learn more about her, about who she was beyond these things that ultimately relate her back to men or children. She made many comments about his personality, but he did not make as many about her (and when he did, they were about her sexually). Perhaps this was a way to suggest that there were things unsaid in their relationship, but it personally read as uneven character writing.
But the audience did get to understand how Alice saw the world as a deaf person. Both in the writing and in the production, mentions of the deaf experience are made. When Alice loses her child, her voice acts as the nurse trying to relay the information to her, but it is mentioned that Alice cannot read lips fast enough. The writing does conflict a bit with Phil also being deaf. There is one date where Alice and Phil are on a bridge and he attempts to sign something to her, and she admits he didn’t sign anything understandable but appreciated the effort. This was a little confusing, given that I originally understood Phil was also deaf and was signing the entire show already up until that point.
Most of this play takes place in a bed, which is more interesting than one would expect given Sean Fanning’s scenic design. The aerial view of this couple’s bedroom, complete with details of strewn laundry, pills by the bedside table, a partially open door, allows the audience to watch the actors stand in ways that make it look as though they are lying down. The projection design is also fantastic. When one actor leaves the bed, their projection is shown on the side of the bed they no longer occupy. The other spaces are sparse; a ballet bar for the post office, a bench and divider for the hospital. Yet the bedroom, even partially lit, is ever-present and serves as the foundation of their relationship and the space.
“The Solid Life Of Sugar Water” is a fascinating and quick look into the complex nature of human physicality and intimacy. The audience is allowed into their home, into their bedroom, and are able to see something incredibly raw and real before them.
“The Solid Life Of Sugar Water” runs now through Oct. 13 at Inner-City Arts. More information and tickets can be found here.