Sometimes it’s the most seemingly random interactions that go on to have the greatest impact on our lives. This is the topic explored in Arrival & Departure, a play written and directed by Stephen Sachs and inspired by the 1945 film Brief Encounter. Now in its world premiere at the Fountain Theatre in Los Angeles, Arrival & Departure tells the story of a deaf man and a hard-of-hearing woman who meet in a modern day New York City subway station and are unable to ignore the connection that develops between them.
Presented fully in both American Sign Language and spoken English, the play introduces us to Emily (Deanne Bray), a hard-of-hearing woman who is fluent in both languages, speaking with the help of hearing aids. This enables her to communicate with her hearing husband, Doug (Brian Robert Burns), a well-meaning man who has never, to Emily’s great frustration, made much of an effort to learn ASL. They also have a hearing daughter, Jule (Aurelia Myers), who is in middle school and dipping her toes into the idea of boys and dating for the first time. One day in the Dunkin Donuts in a subway station, Emily gets something in her eye, and a stranger assists her. This stranger is Sam (Troy Kotsur), a deaf man who communicates solely via ASL. Intrigued by the rare opportunity to interact with someone who is deaf, Emily quickly develops a friendship with him. They begin to meet weekly in the subway station, both increasingly aware of the potential inappropriateness of their relationship. Sam is married with children and also a teacher and filmmaker who finds a muse of sorts in Emily, while she finds herself enchanted by the way Sam signs, and how different their connection is from what she experiences at home, and from anything she has experienced in many years.
In a subplot set in the same subway station, Russell (Shon Fuller), a cop, relentlessly flirts with Mya (Jessica Jade Andres), who works at the Dunkin Donuts. Mya is fresh out of a bad serious relationship and Russell is coping with some trauma in his own past, and she eventually acquiesces to going on a date with him. Meanwhile, Emily and Sam’s daughter, Jule begins messaging a boy on an online dating app for the first time, but the person she is newly infatuated with may not be what they seem.
The issues of infidelity raised in this story are difficult ones, and the morally grey area the central relationship falls into makes the characters hard to sympathize with at times. But there is no denying that Kotsur and Bray, who are married in real life, are magnetic to watch together, and the production does an excellent job of presenting the show in both languages. When only English is being used, the dialogue appears in projections for the audience to read, and during interactions only in ASL, two members of the ensemble (Adam Burch and Stasha Surdyke) speak Emily and Sam’s lines.
Bray in particular is giving a truly lovely, nuanced performance. You can sense her simultaneous hesitation and undeniable curiosity in every early interaction with Sam, and even when the play takes her desperation a bit too far in an unearned moment at the end, she nearly sells it. The contrast between Emily’s communications with Sam and with Doug and Jule is intentionally striking, both in terms of the language they use to communicate and the type of person she allows herself to be. All of the characters in the piece are thoughtfully drawn. Even Doug, whom you may expect to be vilified to help the story, is not—he is by and large a kind, if occasionally ignorant, husband and father, and shows growth throughout the play.
One element that never quite pays off is an underlying theme of Christianity. Emily has been taking classes at the church and is set to be baptized soon, which Doug, a devout churchgoer, is thrilled about. Aside from some pointed dialogue about sinners and the suggestion that Emily is looking to fill a void in her life with something, anything, and she was hopeful church may be that thing until she finds it in Sam instead, this aspect ultimately feels unnecessary to her character development.
While the story told in Arrival & Departure may not be breaking the mold, the form it is told in is. It is wonderful to see Bray and Kotsur, two talented deaf actors, get to tell this story, giving deaf and hard-of-hearing patrons accessible theater and hopefully teaching hearing audience members something about deaf culture and communication barriers they may not encounter in their everyday lives. It is quite intentional that the setting in which Emily and Sam have some of their most revealing conversations in silence is a New York City subway station, one of the loudest environments in modern life, and that juxtaposition provides a nice lens into a classic story with a new twist.
Arrival & Departure runs at the Fountain Theatre in Hollywood through September 30th. The running time is 90 minutes, no intermission. Performances are Mondays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 2pm. Tickets start at $35 and can be purchased here. There are discounted tickets available for students and seniors, subject to availability pay-what-you-can tickets on Monday nights, and $20 rush tickets 15 minutes before curtain, subject to availability.