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[Note: The Contemporary American Theater Festival each year produces five new American plays in Shepherdstown, WV (an hour and a half from Baltimore) Wednesdays through Sundays throughout July. This is a review of one of this year's productions. Each will be separately reviewed in this space.]

The question is posed in the first few minutes of Chisa Hutchinson's Dead and Breathing: Can Carolyn, a wealthy black widow dying by inches of cancer, persuade Veronika, her at-home hospice nurse, to kill her? It won't be easy, as this funny, insightful play establishes. Veronika is seriously Christian. Carolyn's reasons for wanting to shuffle off this mortal coil are complex and not such as to make her a strong candidate in Veronika's mind for the big favor of euthanasia. And besides, Carolyn (Lizan Mitchell) is repulsed by transsexuals, which Veronika (N.L. Graham) happens to be (to Carolyn's surprise, if not that of the audience). It appears that, if Carolyn has to go, she faces what she disgustedly calls "death by tranny."

In the play's hour and a half, Carolyn's bitter, God-free vision of reality and her place in it is placed in strong opposition to Veronika's sense of a personal relationship with the Deity, as they wrestle earthily and wittily with Caroline's pursuit of extinction and the incentive Caroline dangles in front of Veronika to buy (or is it extort?) her cooperation in bringing that pursuit to a successful conclusion. In the end, it seems possible God actually has answered Veronika's prayer and sent a signal of the divine intent for resolving the conflict.

Hutchinson is a writer of telling wisecracks, e.g. "You now return me to my regularly scheduled program of disdainful silence" or "Honk if you love bumper stickers about Jesus." And I'm not sure she has any serious purpose in this play. But unlike some of the other entrants in this year's Festival, this play is so well-finished it seems ready for a trip to New York.

This is not just a duel of characters, but of actors. Lizan Mitchell, a face most viewers are probably familiar with from quality television like The Wire, is powerful and dignified, even with no clothes on - and delivers sharp-tongued zingers with scornful abandon. And N.L. Graham, a sassier sister of Laverne Cox of Orange Is The New Black (another great exponent of the art of making femininity issue from an originally male frame), mines every delicious wisecrack for all it might possibly be worth. (Kristin Horton's direction doubtless has something to do with it as well.)

I was going to end with the caution that this is not exactly a feel-good show, but the number of theatergoers I saw walking out, obviously feeling good, has made me reconsider. I guess it is, despite the darkness of the subject.

Dead and Breathing, by Chisa Hutchinson, directed by Kristin Horton, through August 3, at the Marinoff Center, 62 West Campus Drive, Shepherdstown, WV 25443. Tickets $30-$59,, 304-876-5443 (credit cards) or 304-876-3473. Adult themes, adult language, nudity.

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