Dead & Breathing pairs the formidable Lizan Mitchell with the dazzling N.L. Graham in a battle of witticisms, piercing words and stratagems about life, living, end of life decisions, and the tumultuous journey between.
Anyone who has followed Mitchell over the years knows that her small frame carries a lot of heft, and she has met her match in the tender care and bitchified language of her unflappable care giver, VeroniKa Fern played to the hilt by N.L. Graham. The two trade verbal insults and dagger wielding asides, throwing barbs a’plenty, dishing about the latest gossip on “The View” and on each other.
Both know how to deliver killer lines with terrific timing, snappy direction by Kristin Horton keeps them sharp, and if looks could kill they’d be double homicide fodder for CSI.
What’s special about the writing is how playwright Chisa Hutchinson weaves the back-story between these two – the mean- streaked rich lady determined to end her miserable life, and her potty mouthed home aide who is just as committed to exploring all options before taking that route.
Mitchell bears it to the buff for this production and carries off her scenes with a queenly bearing. She rises from her bath, cloaks herself in a large towel to handle some stage business, only to immerse herself again and emerge a second time. Good for her, and for us to witness such confidence and artistry.
The script raises questions about poverty and wealth, happiness and fulfillment— factors in the quest for meaning, purpose and self-worth. How much would it be worth for VeronKa to consider assisting with a suicide? The dance with the devil deliberations deepen with breathtaking speed as the playwright dabbles with spiritual and religious consequences, then elevates the stakes, giving Carolyn substantial wealth to bequeath on her own conditions.
Carolyn knows she’s a hellified piece of work with a flagrant disregard for humanity and life, especially her own, as she barricades herself in scowling solitude. In hospice for two years, her pain-filled episodes are only too real, and her lingering death sentence from uterine cancer is like a noose that tightens uncomfortably but doesn’t yank her off her feet yet.
Waiting for the inevitable is what eats her up. Always used to getting her way, Carolyn is determined to be in control of her own last breath, dammit.
Set design by Luciana Stecconi is a marvel, especially considering it has to be broken down and reconstructed as a relatively bare stage for another production in repertory the same day. The claw footed tub sits on a mildly elevated level and is filled with enough water for Mitchell to sink under for an early drowning attempt.
The lower level features a plush divan piled with luscious pillows for the character to recline, reflect, plot, and assume her final position.
DEAD & BREATHING
Closes August 3, 2014
Contemporary American Theatre Festival
62 West Campus Drive
Shepherdstown, West Virginia
1 hour, 30 minutes
Tickets: $53 – $59
Details and Tickets
It’s only a matter of time before word travels throughout the metro area about this latest hot script and production at the Contemporary American Theater Festival (CATF). Like a handful of others that were incubated in the loving hands of CATF and made their way to fame (though probably not fortune in this business), here’s hoping that this world premiere Dead and Breathing will hit a nerve and find its stride.
Make the trip to Shepherdstown to see what the buzz is about, and you can say you saw it first at CATF.
Dead & Breathing by Chisa Hutchinson . Directed by Kristin Horton . Featuring N.L. Graham and Lizan Mitchell .Set Design: Luciana Stecconi . Costume Design: Trevor Bowen . Lighting Design: Tony Galaska . Sound Design: Eric Shimelonis . Stage Manager: Lori M. Doyle . Produced by Contemporary American Theater Festival . Reviewed by Debbie Minter Jackson.