SHEPHERDSTOWN, W. VA., July 17, 2014 – Chisa Hutchinson’s world premiere dramedy, “Dead and Breathing,” certainly makes you sit up and take notice from its very beginning. It’s a nonstop battle of wits from the opening bell between rich, elderly and terminally ill Carolyn (Lizan Mitchell) and her feisty, impossibly upbeat. nurse-caregiver Veronika (N. L. Graham).
The verbal dueling in this roughly 90-minute fast and furious joust−one of five plays in CATF’s 2014 summer season−is simultaneously thought provoking and as funny as it gets. That’s as long as you don’t mind some initial (and fairly gratuitous) nudity. Or the kind of raunchy, street smart dialogue whose creative tailoring of four-letter words into all parts of speech is reminiscent of the wickedly harsh (and often hilarious) dialogue that made HBO’s Baltimore edgy series “The Wire” such a gritty, realistic classic in the early 2000s.
While the coarseness of “Dead and Breathing’s” dialogue may not be for everyone, it is, for better or worse, an authentic reflection of the world in which we live including the language that many, Americans, including holier-than-thou politicians, routinely employ in heated private discussions.
Ms. Hutchinson has an uncanny ear for this kind of thing. Under her care and supervision, her dialogue crackles to life, keeping both the mind and the ear on constant edge. Functionally, it’s a kind of scatological prose poetry that has a rhythm and a purpose all its own, achieving at times something approaching the wickedly funny cynicism that’s kept the plays of Oscar Wilde popular in theaters worldwide over a century after his death.
Carolyn—old, imperious, self-admittedly selfish, and often vindictive yet surpassingly intelligent and self-aware—is living alone in a palatial home under hospice care. She’s been pronounced terminally ill with cancer; is in considerable pain at least partially due to her medications; and is so pissed off about the whole absurdly miserable situation that she just wants to die and get it over with.
Unfortunately, after hiring and firing who knows how many hapless hospice nurse-caregivers, she’s now finds herself under the care and supervision of the equally feisty, far more religious, and vastly more positive-thinking Veronika.
Veronika has some issues of her own, of course, but seems to have come to terms with them and sees absolutely no reason why Carolyn can’t shake her demons as well and live what life she has left to its fullest.
In the midst of all her characters’ passionate wrangling, stiletto-like one-liners, and just plain orneriness, Hutchison also manages to inject those important end-of-life questions into the fabric of this intense little play. That’s precisely what makes it considerably more substantial than, say, a generic sitcom based merely on the eccentricities of a pair of outrageous eccentrics.
The crunch-point of the play is this: Carolyn wants to leave what has become for her this accursed earthly sphere. And she wants her caregiver to help her out in this endeavor.
As an inducement, she offers Veronika her mansion and her not inconsiderable fortune to help her kick the bucket. She further emphasizes the point by calling her lawyer right in front of Veronika and ordering him to alter her will thusly.
So will born-again Christian Veronika abandon her principals when faced with such a persuasive inducement? As we’re not known for including spoilers in our reviews, you’ll just have to pick up a ticket to find out the answer.
The forward motion of this play is further heightened by some unusual twists that keep the audience guessing about the outcome until the very end, although the astute playgoer may see some of this coming as clues, for the most part, are carefully strewn about.
The only jarring element in this play is a sudden, surprisingly jarring and very nearly sanctimonious sermon on the inherent virtue of those inhabiting the LGBT quadrant of the universe. Whether in sales or in drama, selling past the close is never a good idea. Unfortunately, we get a bit of that here, which undercuts, albeit briefly, the near-perfection of this nasty, funny, earthy, and surprisingly wise little play.
Writing, humor and philosophy aside, a two-character play like this one rises or falls in the end on the quality of the players. Happily, both Lizan Mitchell and N.L. Graham are more than equal to the challenges Ms. Hutchison has laid out before them.
Ms. Mitchell is letter perfect as the godless, sharp-tongued, very nearly odious yet still haughty Carolyn. Whether she really is or not, Carolyn behaves as if she were to the manor born, although we gradually come to learn that her nastiness is largely born part out of loneliness and part out of a longing to mean something in the pageant of life.
Having never solved that dilemma, Carolyn is furious to be at the point of death without answers. So she alternates irrational contempt for Veronika and her way of life while beseeching her to end her own—a riddle wrapped in an enigma, for which Carolyn no longer cares. It’s a tough role to play. But Ms. Mitchell has internalized it and delivers a stunning performance.
As her caregiver and equally combative opponent—quite a feat in and of itself—N.L. Graham turns in an equally impressive performance as Veronika, the self-confessed Christian who finds the simplest of Christian tenets sorely tested when confronted with an offer that almost no human could conceivably refuse: wealth beyond avarice.
Veronika resists. She decides to cave. Then she resists again. She faces the kind of awful choice that many of us like to think we’ll know how to decide. But when confronted with the actuality of such a choice, all those certain certainties become somehow uncertain.
N.L. Graham, for all the boisterousness of this part, is dancing on the head of that proverbial pin, trying to decide in favor of the angels or the devils. And it’s not as easy as Veronika thought it would be. The acting here is superb and above all believable. We’re forced to ask, would any of us do any better, be any firmer in making our own choice if confronted by a similar dilemma.
From the writing to the acting to Luciana Stecconi’s economical but effective set design to the delicate touch of Kristin Horton’s stage direction, CATF’s world premiere production of
Chisa Hutchinson’s “Dead and Breathing” is a classic piece of “think theater.”
Just don’t bring the kiddies.
Rating: *** (3 out of 4 stars)
“Dead and Breathing” by Chisa Hutchinson, will be performed in repertory through August 3, 2014 at CATF. Consult the information below for festival particulars and links.
Tickets, Times, and Places: The following info is taken from CATF press material:
Matinee and evening performances are held Wednesday – Sunday throughout the Festival at a variety of times and venues. Single ticket prices to the 2014 repertory are $59. Four-show and five-show subscription discount packages (Rep Passes) are available, ranging from $100-$240. Additional ticket savings are available for military personnel and families (as part of the Blue Star Theater Program), students, seniors, patrons 30 & under, and West Virginia residents.
Performance tickets can be purchased through the Theater Festival Box Office, which is open off-season Monday to Friday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., by calling 800-999-CATF (2283), or 24-hours a day online by visiting www.catf.org/boxoffice.
For the official schedule, visit http://catf.org/schedule/
Complete season information – including playwright bios, promotional images and headshots, schedule, past production photos, videos, and ticketing – is available at www.catf.org. Social media connections (#CATF) can be made at twitter.com/thinktheater and facebook.com/CATFatSU.
Getting there: It all depends on where you life. Marylanders and DC denizens will likely head out to Shepherdstown via the Beltway, I-270, I-70 plus a few turns on local roads in the general vicinity of Hagerstown before crossing the Potomac. All plays will be staged at venues not far from the bridge crossing.
Virginia residents will likely head out via the Dulles Toll Road/Greenway to the VA-7 Leesburg bypass and then to VA-WV-9 to the Shepherdstown turnoff. But other routes may also work.
Check the CATF web site for further details, or program your GPS for the theater location you need. Or visit CATF’s “Getting There” info at http://catf.org/map-a-directions/.
Dining and lodging: If you plan on getting the ticket package for the entire Festival, call now and check the CATF general website above for dining and lodging suggestions. NOTE: Shepherdstown has a surprising number of first-rate restaurants, but they tend to get jammed during the Festival. Reservations are HIGHLY suggested.