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Theatre in Review: Dead and Breathing (National Black Theatre)

Nikki E. Walker, Lizan Mitchell. Photo: Christine Jean Chambers

Dead and Breathing begins with Carolyn, who is in her late sixties and ailing, being given a bath by Veronika, her home nurse. Veronika is chatting up a storm, to little response. But, when Veronika goes to answer the door, Carolyn leaps into action: She puts her head underwater, only to resurface, gasping. She rifles through the extensive contents of her medicine cabinet but is unable to get the cap off a bottle of sedatives. She is about to get back into the tub with an electric hair dryer when Veronika returns, talking a blue streak about the attractiveness of professional delivery men.

Clearly, Carolyn, who is suffering from advanced uterine cancer, wants to die, and, just as clearly, she cannot do it alone. In the first half of Dead and Breathing, Carolyn uses every power at her command to convince Veronika to expand her duties to include mercy killing. Veronika, a committed Christian, is horrified at the thought. Carolyn, employing what she thinks are subtle wiles, says, "How about you say a little prayer while you hold the pillow over my face, if that'll make you feel better about it?" When that enticement doesn't work, Carolyn calls her lawyer and makes Veronika her beneficiary -- to the tune of $87 million.

For the first 45 minutes or so, Dead and Breathing is a brutally candid, and often hilarious, account of one woman's attempts at inspiring her own killing. You will have guessed by now that Carolyn is a handful; not for nothing is Veronika the seventeenth nurse to take on caring for Carolyn. She may also be the toughest: "You haven't cried at all yet," Carolyn says, wonderingly. Because Veronika's objections to Carolyn's plan are based in her faith, much of the conversation turns on religion. Veronika says, "I take it you're not a Christian." "Not remotely," Carolyn replies. "Not even in the popular, superficial, hypocritical way." Later, she admits to having been raised Catholic. Veronika asks, "What made you stop going to church?" "I developed critical thinking skills," snaps Carolyn.

As long as Carolyn and Veronika are tussling about assisted suicide, Dead and Breathing retains a crackle all its own, but the talented playwright, Chisa Hutchinson, throws a curveball at the halfway point, revealing a major secret about Veronika that rattles her relationship with Carolyn to its foundations. It also represents a major change of topic that sends the play scampering in another direction altogether. (I don't think I should reveal it, but, as a hint, there's a reason Veronika can't have children.)

It's at this point that Dead and Breathing loses much of its snap and goes into full-time speechmaking mode. This is also the point when one begins to notice how contrived it is. Veronika quite reasonably points out that the police might look askance if Carolyn dies less than an hour after changing her will; Carolyn waves this objection away, but it sticks, anyway. This legal maneuvering, combined with Carolyn's various attempts at killing herself, the bombshell about Veronika, Carolyn's discussion of her late husband, and an eleventh-hour revelation about Carolyn's illness all make for a very crowded 90 minutes of real stage time. (There's also a reason why Veronika says to Carolyn, "You're the most alive person I've worked with for a long, long time.") For a play whose characters are required to make profound, and often counterintuitive, moral decisions, often in no time flat, the author's guiding hand is far too obvious.

Until it is dragged down by too many twists and an excess of oration, Dead and Breathing's two stars make hay with Hutchinson's dialogue. It's not hard to believe that Lizan Mitchell's Carolyn has sent seventeen nurses running screaming into the night with her demands. She is especially funny when, in a transparent attempt at getting her way, she adopts the unaccustomed role of theologian, saying with a shrug, "What if this [her suicide plan] is all part of God's big plan for me?" Nikki E. Walker's Veronika is easily her match, whether carefully applying lip gloss before answering the door or turning on Carolyn in a fury after the old lady makes a feeble peace gesture, saying, "Oh, was that supposed to be a poignant, reaching-across-the-class barrier moment?" That neither can do much to enliven the play's final stretch has more to do with the play's overloaded arguments and constantly twisting plot. They are not always helped by the direction of Jonathan McCrory, which at times is intensely focused and at others lets the ladies wander about the stage a tad aimlessly.

The design is plus factor, beginning with Maruti Evans' elaborate set design, which features two rooms in Carolyn's house: a bedroom intriguingly backed by a series of empty picture frames, and an all-white bathroom, complete with stained glass window. Alan C. Edwards' lighting is equally accomplished. Karen Perry's costumes, including a shimmering caftan for Carolyn and a nurse's uniform for Veronika, are spot on. Justin Hicks' sound design makes good use of Aretha Franklin's "All Night Long" as well as amusing effects that track Carolyn's TV-watching habits.

Hutchinson clearly has knack for wisecracking dialogue and a willingness to take on thorny topics. Still, she needs to be more selective. Then again, her fearlessness is not to be dismissed; there may be a really hair-raising play in her (and our) future.--David Barbour

(4 November 2015)

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