BWW Reviews: CATF 2014: DEAD AND BREATHING is a Sarcastic and Sentimental Comedy with Show-Stopping Laughs
Hospice care and cancer are not generally topics which leave audiences roaring with laughter. However, in the world-premiere comedy Dead and Breathing, written by Chisa Hutchinson and directed by Kristin Horton, audiences are left in stitches as a sharp tongued and sickly elderly woman cajoles, bribes, threatens and tries any possible way to force her in-home nurse to comply with assisted suicide.
In Dead and Breathing, Carolyn (played by Lizan Mirchell) is an elderly, wealthy widow who is diagnosed with cancer and not expected to live past six months.....but that was two years ago. Now, her ailments drag on every day and she spends most of her time looking for ways to end her misery and begging or threatening her in-home care nurse Veronika (played by N.L. Graham) to assist with her suicide. A staunch Christian, Veronika refuses...... until Carolyn reveals she just made Veronika the sole beneficiary in her will and Veronika will inherit $27 million as soon as Carolyn dies.
Lizan Mitchell as Carolyn was a sharp tongued, delightful elderly spitfire,making the audience want her death wish not to come true. Reminiscent of a harsher and much more sarcastic Daisy from Driving Miss Daisy, Mitchell displayed impeccable comedic timing with perfect comedic quips. A brilliant comedy bit at the beginning Mitchell soaked every moment out of featured the less-than-limber Carolyn trying to find ways to commit suicide in a rare moment she wasn't under her nurse's watchful eye. From attempting and then failing to open a bottle of pills with a childproof cap to trying to stretch the hair dryer cord to reach the bathtub, Mitchell provided a moment of comedic gold.
N.L. Graham as Veronika was strong, powerful and the sassiest hospice worker most audiences have seen. Her comedic timing was excellent, especially when providing most of the sarcastic punch lines to Carolyn's already hilarious quips. Graham displayed the fast talking, high energy pace comparable to a female Eddie Murphy in a sassy, husky voice, whether she was quoting Bible verses or cursing like a sailor.
Though Mitchell and Graham gave equally strong individual performances, together they are a theatrical dream team. The relationship the two actors built throughout the course of the show was extremely moving and both compliment each other perfectly. Their reactions to each other are brilliantly timed and make one of the completely unexpected plot twists all the more poignant. The relationship and trust the two actors have for each other is fully evident in the opening moments of the show when Mitchell, fully naked, is assisted in and out of the bath tub by Graham. The detail provided an important moment in starkly showing audiences the day to day reality of hospice care and fully depending on an in-home care taker.
The set also contributed greatly to the physical comedy. Staged in-the-round in the Marinoff Theater, the set featured a joined bathroom and bedroom in wealthy Carolyn's mansion. Since Carolyn spends most of the second half of the show in her bed, the set design and staging greatly helped and the show was enhanced by the intricate set and costume details.
Dead and Breathing was a rare comedy which provided just as many suspenseful moments and thought-provoking questions as it did laughs. Though there were many perfectly-timed social and religious one-liners and set ups which literally stopped the show with laughter, the rare show also featured many sentimental moments and serious questions. Fortunately, whenever the situation started to become too tense, a joke quickly followed to relieve the mounting tension. By the conclusion of the show, after two brilliant and completely unsuspected plot twists, it was almost impossible to tell whether audience members were crying from laughing so hard or from the moments of deep emotional connection. With this sarcastic and sentimental show, it was probably a well-earned combination of both.
Dead and Breathing continues to run as one of the five plays in rotating repertory at the Contemporary American Theater Festival. Dead and Breathing performances occur at the Marinoff Theater on the campus of Shepherd University in Shepherdstown, WV. The final performance occurs August 3 at 2:30 PM. For more information about the show schedule, the 2014 season or to order tickets, please visit www.catf.org.
Photo Credit: CATF Media Gallery