What does intimacy look like after two people have been forever changed by a devastating tragedy? The Solid Life of Sugar Water, a play by Jack Thorne (Harry Potter and the Cursed Child) currently in its US premiere at Deaf West Theatre in Los Angeles, follows a young couple as they attempt to connect sexually for the first time after the stillbirth of their child. Alice (Sandra Mae Frank) is deaf, while Phil (Tad Cooley) is not. Even though this is part of the story, the play was written to be performed by two speaking actors. But Deaf West, known for combining American Sign Language with spoken English in their performances, cast two deaf actors, as well as two speaking actors (Natalie Camunas and Nick Apostalina) so the play can be presented simultaneously in both languages.
Directed by Randee Trabitz, the first remarkable thing about this play is its set (Sean Fanning). While it consists of traditional items depicting a couple’s bedroom, it is situated perpendicular to the floor so the audience is staring straight at the bed, offering a sort of birds-eye view. The actors stand in front of the bed and lean against it, and when they place a mug on the end table, magnets help it stay suspended, maintaining the illusion. Considering how much of the play takes place in bed, this offers a much more visceral and intimate vantage point for the audience than if the actors were lying in a bed conventionally staged on the floor.
And this intimacy provides the framing device for Alice and Phil’s story—they are trying to have sex for the first time since a recent heartbreak, something that is very complicated for both of them. They each address the audience directly, sharing their most personal inner thoughts. There is humor in seeing how vastly differently they interpret the same events—particularly in terms of what they each enjoy sexually. The play never shies away from describing explicit content in great detail, but interestingly, the two actors rarely touch during the scenes in bed, instead each facing the audience while lying on the bed, signing and acting out their own half of things.
Often, the action flashes back to key moments in their relationship, starting with their meet cute in a post office queue and ending with the heartbreaking end of Alice’s pregnancy. Camunas and Apostolina serve a variety of roles in relation to Frank and Cooley—during the scenes in bed, they simply sit in the darkness to the side of the stage, speaking into microphones. During the flashback scenes, they move around with the primary actors, acting as an “angel on the shoulder” of sorts, handing off props and seamlessly weaving themselves into the action as supportive counterparts. Despite jumping around in time, the story moves seamlessly, held together by the strong emotional thread of the core relationship.
It is honestly hard to believe that this piece has not always been performed by deaf actors, particularly in the case of Alice. She comments ruefully that she thinks Phil has always found her “exotic” because of her deafness, and his well-meaning but ultimately unsuccessful attempts to learn ASL are mentioned throughout the story. Just as they did with their stunning Spring Awakening, which began at this same venue, The Rosenthal Theater at Inner-City Arts, in 2014, Deaf West has found a show that at its very core is about communication, and enhanced this message by presenting it in the two languages simultaneously. Alice and Phil are struggling to communicate physically and emotionally after the death of their child, and the language barrier between them adds another layer. It is also incredibly rare to see any depiction of sexuality and intimacy in deaf relationships in media, and Thorne’s script holds nothing back.
Frank and Cooley have strong chemistry, particularly in the lighthearted scenes from early in their relationship. Her excited smile when he reaches for her hand at a movie on their second date speaks volumes, and Frank is giving a beautiful, layered performance, equally effective in the play’s most humorous and most devastating moments. Cooley is endearing as Phil, who is more socially awkward than Alice, but always well-intentioned. The only aspect of the production that is not entirely successful is the projection design—sometimes, when Alice and Phil leave the bed to perform another scene downstage, images of them are projected onto it to fill the space, and this felt more distracting than necessary. Overall, this play is a perfect choice for Deaf West, and beautifully realized in this production, which is a brutally honest look at coping and connecting in the face of tragedy.
The Solid Life of Sugar Water runs at The Rosenthal Theater at Inner-City Arts through October 13th. Performances are Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 3pm. Due to explicit language and mature subject matter, this show is not recommended for young audiences. The running time is 80 minutes, no intermission. Tickets start at $38.50 and can be purchased here.