Review: Hopeful Hearts Take a Complicated Journey in ARRIVAL & DEPARTURE

By: Jul. 22, 2018

For Laura, in Noel Coward's beautiful pre-World War II black & white film, Brief Encounter, it is an unexpected meeting at a train station that leads to a secret romance with a friendly stranger named Alec. In ARRIVAL & DEPARTURE, the stage play inspired by Coward's film, written and directed by Stephen Sachs, it is a moment in a modern day New York subway station that thrusts Emily (Deanne Bray) into a similar romantic conundrum with another stranger, Sam (Troy Kotsur).

Both love stories begin innocently enough, with a helpful gesture that necessitates looking into someone's eyes at close quarters. This small but critical act gives rise to an unexpected connection that might otherwise never have happened, the complications of which play out as each couple considers what it means to fall in love when you're already married to another.

David Lean, who directed Brief Encounter, capitalizes on the noir effect of the black & white film genre with stunning camera work and a pace that is slow and deliberate. The lens seems to caress everything it sees as the various shadows and edges come alive with smoldering intensity. Against this canvas, Laura relates the series of events as she remembers them.

Sachs takes a different approach to Emily's story, one that acknowledges the faster pace of modern urban living, but it still comes with a cinematic twist. This change represents a departure from the POV of the film and, while it is a clever reveal, it turns the world premiere play into a third person narrative in its final moments but doesn't explain how this person can know what takes place after the final farewell. In theory, the idea is brilliant, so I hope further development will address this lingering question.

As part of his update, Sachs has written the play as a star vehicle for his friends Deanne Bray and Troy Kotsur, Deaf actors who have made considerable names for themselves in the Deaf acting community. The rest of the cast consists of hearing actors - two of whom (Adam Burch and Stasha Surdyke) partner with Bray and Kotsur to provide a spoken voice for their signing - and the play is performed using a combination of American Sign Language, spoken English, and open captioning.

ARRIVAL & DEPARTURE is as much a relationship play as it is a love story. Our relationship with ourselves determines how we relate to the rest of the world and, in the case of Emily and Sam, how we relate to someone who seems to understand us even better than we do.

Emily's thirteen year marriage to Doug (Brian Robert Burns) is already showing cracks. In all that time, her selfish husband has never decided it was important enough to learn ASL to better communicate with his hard-of-hearing wife, nor has their angst-ridden teenage daughter, Jule (Aurelia Myers). The rather obtuse Christian man is instead obsessed with his wife's conversion to Christianity, a point he continually reminds her of throughout the play. By the same token, it has taken her thirteen years to finally agree to convert. She sees her conversion as a way to be part of a community and it is clear she is doing it for her husband's sake, but is unsure whether it is the right decision.

When she meets Sam, suddenly there is a person in her life who doesn't ask her to be anything other than who she is. He teaches film production for the deaf and is part of an established community. Until now, she has never felt more alone. Mutual attraction begets a budding romance, furthered in their weekly rendezvous both at the subway station and around the city.

In one beautifully staged scene, Sam convinces her to take off her shoes and wade in the water with him. The innocence of the moment, by two actors whose eyes can communicate worlds without uttering a sound, is astonishing in its impact, particularly when combined with Nicholas E. Santiago's shimmering water video and Donny Jackson's subtle shift in lighting framing them. The result is a breathtaking picture that springs into action like a 3-D movie shot vibrantly pulsating beyond the constraints of the stage.

From the very beginning of the play, Santiago's projections add a cinematic feel to the story, breathing life into the movement of the city augmented by Peter Bayne's original music and sound design. Matthew G. Hill creates a realistic subway station with panels that double as screens for scrolling text and filmed footage as the foundation of the set. Within this framework, scenes in other locations take place as if they are suspended in time on the Fountain Theatre's stage, which seems much larger than it actually is because of Hill's design.

Two additional relationships play out in ARRIVAL & DEPARTURE. The first is between Russell (Shon Fuller), a charming MTA security officer who secretly carries a torch for Mya (Jessica Jade Andres), an outspoken donut shop worker who's been unlucky in love and won't take him seriously. There is a sweetness in the way their journey to coupledom must first break down her walls, and when Fuller and Andres finally connect it is a satisfying turn of events.

The other is an online teenage crush situation Jule enters into. In her desire for love and acceptance, she learns the hard way that you don't always know who is really on the other end of the text messages you're sending until it's too late. It is a story thread that leads her back to appreciating her mother but the time it takes could easily be shortened and still accomplish its goal. It, as well as the whole Christianity conversion thread only distracts from the main event, which is the relationship between Emily and Sam. The story is strongest when it keeps them in focus, particularly because the casting is spot-on.

Sachs knew what he was doing when he wrote this play for Bray and Kotsur. Both are fine actors whose individual rhythms work in tandem to present a compelling picture of the human heart in action, in all its messy, emotional uncertainty.

ARRIVAL & DEPARTURE is a relationship play, a love story, a thoughtful tale of two people looking to make sense of the complicated business of human connection amid the bluster and noise of a world in motion. It's a journey that speaks to us all.

July 14 - September 30, 2018
Fountain Theatre
5060 Fountain Ave.
Los Angeles CA 90029
(Fountain at Normandie)
Tickets: (323) 663-1525 or

Photo credit: Ed Krieger