Theater
3:47 am
Sat July 19, 2014

With Humor, 'Dead And Breathing' Dives Into End-Of-Life Struggles

Originally published on Sat July 19, 2014 6:40 pm

The play Dead and Breathing begins boldly. Sixty-eight-year-old Carolyn takes off her towel and steps into a bathtub completely naked. She's bathed by her chatty nurse, Veronika.

The wealthy, cantankerous woman is dying of cancer. Carolyn, played by Lizan Mitchell, wants to die sooner rather than later, and tries to convince the nurse (N.L. Graham) to help her do that.

It's one of the most talked-about new plays at this year's Contemporary American Theater Festival in Shepherdstown, W.Va., which runs through Aug. 3.

Playwright Chisa Hutchinson started writing Dead and Breathing about two years ago, not long after taking care of her own mother, who was dying of uterine cancer.

"I wound up having to stay with her for a little while, taking leave from work," says Hutchinson. "I mean, it's a trip having to change your mom's diaper, you know. It's a lot."

Beginning the play the way she does, with the bathing scene, Hutchinson disarms the audience. While she was writing, she sought feedback from John Eisner, artistic director of the Lark Play Development Center in New York.

"It actually precipitated an amazing conversation about the usefulness of nudity on stage," Eisner says, "and what it means when it's done in a useful way, when it's about intimacy and vulnerability and dependence, and it's not there for the shock value."

The wealthy, dying Carolyn and the hospice nurse Veronika are both African-American, but the similarity ends there. Veronika says things like, "If you don't want to keep your breadbox clean, that's fine with me." And gets racier than that.

"She's a big ol' potty mouth. She cusses up a storm," says Hutchinson.

Hutchinson says she was inspired by her real-life Aunt Veronika, who is also a nurse, and the health care workers she met while caring for her mother. She says she has enormous respect for those who care for the sick and dying.

As a writer, she also loves one of their coping mechanisms. "Doctors and nurses and hospice care workers, they have the sickest sense of humor. I imagine you have to," she says.

In the play, Veronika's down-and-dirty humor rankles Carolyn, who is crotchety about everything, despite her vast wealth. "Traveling's a hassle," she complains. "So much hassle, and for what? See some old buildings, eat food prepared in kitchens of questionable hygiene and spend most of your trip with one end or the other aimed at the toilet."

"Carolyn is my attempt to understand people who seem to have everything and are still miserable," says Hutchinson.

Between the chemo and her negative outlook, Carolyn is really ready to go. She tries to persuade Veronika to assist in her suicide; she even promises to put Veronika in her will. Veronika could use the money, but she's a devout Christian. Religion is something both characters wrestle with.

"How about you say a little prayer while you hold the pillow over my face, if that'll make you feel better about it?" Carolyn says to Veronika.

Dead and Breathing is comedic. But playwright Chisa Hutchinson — who's 34 — has thought seriously about end-of-life issues. She has multiple sclerosis, which she says only affects her legs, for now. But Hutchinson does wonder about the course her life might take.

"I wonder if I'll ever get to a point, or if I'm incapacitated in such a way, that will just make life seem not worth it," she says.

Hutchinson is not letting her MS get in the way of her writing, for which she has won a big handful of awards. She was one of the New York Neo-Futurists and once wrote for Blue Man Group. All the while, she pays the bills working as a copywriter for a company that she says sells garden gnomes and sensible shoes.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Consider this scenario - a wealthy, cantankerous old woman is dying of cancer. She's being cared for by a hospice nurse who has a bawdy sense of humor. The woman wants to die sooner rather than later, and tries to convince the nurse to kill her. This is the premise of a new play - a comedy called "Dead And Breathing." It's one of the most talked-about plays at this year's Contemporary American Theater Festival in Shepherdstown, West Virginia. NPR's Elizabeth Blair reports.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: "Dead And Breathing" begins in a bathroom. Sixty-eight-year-old Carolyn takes off her towel and, completely naked, steps into a bathtub. There, on stages, she's bathed by her chatty nurse, Veronika.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "DEAD AND BREATHING")

N. L. GRAHAM: (As Veronika) Yes ma'am, I saw a lot of weird stuff in the ER, but that tops them all. In fact...

BLAIR: Playwright Chisa Hutchinson started writing "Dead And Breathing" about two years ago, not long after taking care of her mother who was dying of uterine cancer.

CHISA HUTCHINSON: And I wound up having to come stay with her for a little while, you know, taking leave from work and staying with her. And, I mean, it's a trip having to change your mom's diaper, you know? Like it's just - it's a lot.

BLAIR: And by beginning her play with a nurse bathing a 68-year-old woman, Chisa Hutchinson disarms the audience.

John Eisner is artistic director of the Lark Play Development Center in New York. He says, as Hutchinson was writing "Dead And Breathing," she brought in the bath scene for feedback.

JOHN EISNER: And it actually precipitated an amazing conversation about the usefulness of nudity on stage, and what it means when it's done in a useful way, when it's about intimacy and vulnerability and dependence, and it's not there for the shock value.

BLAIR: Carolyn the wealthy, dying woman, and Veronika, the hospice nurse are both African-American, but the similarity ends there. Veronika says things like...

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "DEAD AND BREATHING")

GRAHAM: (As Veronika) And if you don't want to keep your breadbox clean, that's fine with me.

BLAIR: And much racier.

HUTCHINSON: She's a big ol' potty mouth. She cusses up a storm.

BLAIR: Chisa Hutchinson says caring for her mother gave her enormous respect for health care workers. As a writer, she also loves one of their coping mechanisms.

HUTCHINSON: Man, doctors and nurses and hospice care workers, they have the sickest sense of humor. And, you know, I just imagine you have to.

BLAIR: Veronika's down-and-dirty humor rankles Carolyn, who despite her enormous wealth, is crotchety about everything.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "DEAD AND BREATHING")

LIZAN MITCHELL: (As Carolyn) Traveling is a hassle. See some old buildings, eat food prepared in kitchens of questionable hygiene and spend most of your trip with one end or the other aimed at the toilet.

HUTCHINSON: Carolyn is my attempt at understanding these people who seem to have everything and are still miserable.

BLAIR: Between the chemo and her cranky outlook, Carolyn is really ready to go. And she tries to persuade Veronika into assisting in her suicide. She even promises to put Veronika in her will if she kills her. Veronika could use the money, but she's a Christian, and they wrestle with that.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "DEAD AND BREATHING")

MITCHELL: (As Carolyn) How about you say a little prayer while you hold the pillow over my face, if that'll make you feel better about it?

GRAHAM: (As Veronika) Don't you know that you are God's temple.

BLAIR: Playwright, Chisa Hutchinson, who's 34 has thought a lot about end-of-life issues. She suffers from MS, which she says for now, only affects her legs. But she does wonder about the course her life might take.

HUTCHINSON: I wonder if I'll ever get to a point, or, you know, if I'm incapacitated in such a way that will just make life seem not worth it.

BLAIR: No question, Chisa Hutchinson's not letting MS get in the way of her writing for which she's won a big handful of awards. She was one of the New York Neo-Futurists and once wrote for Blue Man Group. All the while, she pays the bills working as a copywriter for a company she says sells garden gnomes and sensible shoes.

Chisa Hutchinson's "Dead And Breathing" is currently on stage at the annual Contemporary American Theater Festival on the campus of Shepherd University in West Virginia. Elizabeth Blair, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.