“Arrival” paints a world just beyond our grasp

Seventy-five years ago, a quiet British love film with a noir look was impressing critics in  both England and America. At the same time, on Broadway, the cast and crew of a smash hit turned their show over to Deaf actors for a night — it was the major-theatre debut of  American Sign Language.

The film, Brief Encounter by Noël Coward, went on to be hailed as a classic, one of Britain’s best. The troupe who took over Arsenic and Old Lace were lauded, then went home to Gallaudet University in Washington DC and were forgotten. ASL wasn’t seen again on Broadway for a generation.

[In 1968-69, the National Theater of the Deaf brought a trio of short plays to the Great White Way. Then came Children of a Lesser God  (1980) and, in this century, Deaf West Theatre’s two hit musicals,  Big River (2003) and Spring Awakening (2015).]

Now, at Hollywood’s Fountain Theatre, the two long-separated streams from 1942 are at last flowing together. In Arrival and Departure, Stephen Sachs has adapted Brief Encounter for the stage, and for actors who use both ASL and English — and cell phones.

Deanne Bray, Troy Kotsur (photo: Ed Krieger)

The result is a lively, often complex comic drama about a woman whose quiet life is disrupted by a sudden mutual attraction with a stranger. This is the movie’s story, too — but now it’s set in the bustle of New York, not a small London suburb; and now Emily’s tween-age daughter Jule is having her first internet crush, which her mother must deal with while navigating her own nascent affair.

And Emily is Deaf. As is Sam, the man she meets in a subway station. And in this world, no one particularly notices that Emily and Sam are signing — in fact, the other actors slip easily into voice interpreting the couple’s ASL conversations.

But Emily’s Deafness doesn’t fit so smoothly in her marriage. Her hearing husband, happy to lead her into his church, balks at letting her teach him to sign. (She’s adept at lip-reading and speaking, so he feels no pressure.) We feel her frustration, having to enter someone else’s world while no one shares hers; but it simmers beneath her consciousness until she meets Sam.

In Brief Encounter, the woman’s isolation comes from living in the prison of suburbia. In Arrival and Departure, Deafness intensifies her loneliness — as well as the explosive effect of meeting a man who cherishes her, awakens her sense of adventure and play, and draws her back into the Deaf culture she has drifted away from.

It seems natural that Sachs, a co-founder of both the Fountain and Deaf West, would want to write a play in which Deafness is central. Far less predictable is his choice to adapt Brief Encounter; but it works. Coward’s story focuses on the characters’ emotional lives, and by keeping that focus, Sachs gives us a play that’s not about Deafness but about people in crisis — some of whom are Deaf.

The Fountain’s staging likewise creates a modern, urban world in which Deafness is simply and unremarkably a part of things. Kudos go to the design team: Matthew G. Hill (scenery), Donny Jackson (lighting), Peter Bayne (sound/music), Michael Mullen (costumes), and Michael Navarro (props).

Video designer Nicholas E. Santiago earns a special note for the vibrant city projections, above and below ground, and for the illuminated wall panels that stream the English text — for Deaf viewers during spoken dialog, for non-ASL hearing folks during signed dialog, and for all of us when Jule’s friends are texting her. Finally, Sachs’ direction and Gary Franco’s movement direction create a playful dance of constantly shifting energy.

This is Emily’s play, and Deanne Bray carries it with no visible effort. She and Troy Kotsur (Sam) are both brilliantly fluent in ASL, using its facial and bodily grammar to enrich each sign’s meaning. Bray, also a successful screen actor, gracefully lets micro-gestures convey subtle shifts in her thought and feeling. Kotsur’s Sam is more ebullient and impulsive, almost immune to the doubts Emily suffers — but quickly empathetic when she does. Together, Bray and Kotsur show us new lovers trying to move with delicate care even as love’s awful gravity pulls them out of their lives.

The third main role is Emily’s daughter. Sachs has created her from a mere walk-on in the film, and has set her budding infatuation as a counterweight to Emily’s. Aurelia Myers delivers a fully believable Jule, intelligent yet innocent, torn between needing her mother and hating her, desperately eager for affirmation from peers with whom she doesn’t fit. Though young, Myers already owns one of acting’s hardest skills — listening, and discovering her response.

Finally (in a modernization of Brief Encounter‘s main subplot), Jessica Jades Andres and Shon Fuller perform a delightful courtship waltz as a donut-shop counter girl and a subway cop. And Stasha Surdyke, besides voicing elegantly when Emily signs, gives a sharply wry turn as her blithely unperceptive suburban friend.

Arrival and Departure is a lovingly conceived adaptation of a classic tale, and a well-wrought piece of theatre. But in these difficult years, we must also ask of each new work, “Why this story, and why now?”

In the brutal early years of World War II, Brief Encounter was a tonic, urging people to hold to their sworn commitments, to keep a rapidly exploding world together. For us, struggling against fascism from within, Arrival and Departure seems less about a renounced love — and more about the vision of a world where people of all  kinds combine readily, shifting into one another’s languages, eager to share. That world looks so like our own, so near our reaching hands … and yet so far that we may never arrive.
Arrival and Departure, written and directed by Stephen Sachs (adapted from Noël Coward’s Brief Encounter filmscript).
Presented by The Fountain Theatre, at The Fountain, 5060 Fountain Ave., LA 90029.

Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00,
Sundays at 2:00,
Mondays at 8:00,
through Sept. 30.

Tickets: <www.fountaintheatre.com/event/arrival-departure>