Contemporary American Theater Festival (CATF) Review: ‘Dead and Breathing’


Despite the deus ex machina that ends the show—the miracle that I don’t mind mentioning because playwrights that resort to miracles as conclusions should have their audiences warned in advance—Dead and Breathing is an engaging, heartfelt exploration on death and the need for redemption.  I only pray for my own miracle: that playwright Chisa Hutchinson finds some other way to resolve her play’s wonderfully constructed tension other than by having God’s fateful hand erroneously swish it all away.

Although recent reports have exposed the hospice industry’s rampant corruption turning end-of-life care into continuing-life care for greed and profit, the wealthy Carolyn’s two-year stint in hospice has nothing to do with her near-death state.  In fact, audiences will notice from first light that Carolyn is anything but sickly.  Stepping out of the bath, the good-looking 68-year-old Carolyn is full of feist and sharp as an ice-pick: and yes, you will come to find out that she doesn’t mind using that pick if it helps her get what she wants.

Lizan Mitchell (l) (Carolyn) and N.L. Graham (Veronika). Photo by Seth Freeman.
Lizan Mitchell (l) (Carolyn) and N.L. Graham (Veronika). Photo by Seth Freeman.

And what she says she wants now more than anything is to die.  She has uterine cancer and was told two years ago that she had six months to live; yet, she shows no signs of decay or weariness, other than by anticipation.

Enter Veronika, Carolyn’s 17th hospice nurse in two years.  If Carolyn is used to getting what she wants by any means necessary, Veronika is used to telling it like it is no matter what the result.  A Christian with bible verses at her tongue’s tip, Veronika has as many secrets as Carolyn has temptations.  The results are dynamite as Lizan Mitchell’s Carolyn and N. L. Graham’s Veronika go at one another for a brisk 84 minutes.

Mitchell is a delight to watch.  Cantankerous and in your face she keeps her foot to the pedal for the whole show, using a graceful combination of technique and in-the-moment authenticity.

Graham, on the other hand, stands toe to toe with Mitchell, blending with ease Venonika’s sexually verbose mouth with a Christian purity one cannot help but question given the play’s tussle with death by euthanasia.  Nevertheless, Veronika’s religiosity is believable enough in a play about belief’s wicked effect on our ability to deal with reality.

Directed by Kristin Horton, Dead and Breathing requires a bit of willing suspension of disbelief on everyone’s part, but Horton navigates its stretching of credulity quite well.

With a design team headed by Luciana Stecconi (set designer) and Tony Galaska (lights), Dead and Breathing transports its audience to the lovely interior of Carolyn’s spacious home–specifically her bedroom and bath.  Trevor Bowen (costumes) attired the two actors without fanfare, which given Carolyn’s potential flamboyance must have been difficult. And a special nod must be given to Eric Shimelonis for his oh-so authentic scatological sound effects.

If the need for redemption is the force driving the action of Hutchinson’s Dead and Breathing, then she owes it to her play to let that force play itself out.  Approaching death might initiate our longing for redemption, but once that ball gets rolling, no amount of life saving miracle drugs is going to take it away.  As it stands now, her play sets us up for a resolution, but then guffaws away the results.

Running Time: 84 minutes, without an intermission.

Dead and Breathing and The Contemporary American Theater Festival (CATF) continue through August 3, 2004. Performance tickets to CATF can be purchased through the Theater Festival Box Office, Monday to Friday from 11 am to 5 pm, by calling (800) 999-CATF (2283), or by purchasing them online.


Learn more about the plays, and/or look at the full schedule.

Robert Michael Oliver’s review of ‘The Ashes Under Gait City’ on DCMetroTheaterArts.

Robert Michael Oliver’s review of ‘North of the Boulevard’ on DCMetroTheaterArts.

Contemporary American Theater Festival Interviews: Part 1: An Interview with ‘North of the Boulevard’ Playwright Bruce Graham.

The Playwright’s Playground: ‘The Playmakers – CATF 2014:Interview With Ed Herendeen & Peggy McKowen Who Preview The Season by Sydney-Chanele Dawkins.

The Playwright’s Playground: The Playmakers CATF 2014: Ed Herendeen & Peggy McKowen Discuss the Development of CATF Plays by Sydney-Chanele Dawkins.


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Poet, Performer, Theatre Artist, Playwright, Educator, Writer--Robert Michael Oliver, Ph.D., has been involved in the DC arts scene since the 1980s, when he co-founded The Sanctuary Theatre in the old sanctuary of Calvary United Methodist Church. Since those fierce days in Columbia Heights, he has earned his doctorate in theatre from University of Maryland, raised two wonderful children, and seen more theatre as a reviewer over the last two years than he saw in the previous thirty. He now co-directs, along with his wife Elizabeth Bruce, the Sanctuary's Performing Knowledge Project, which organizes a host of writing and performance workshops, plus Mementos: Poetry and Performance for Seniors, a yearly literature-in-performance Fringe Festival show, as well as Performetry--a monthly poetry and prose performance event at DC's community arts & culture center BloomBars.


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