ALBANY — As director Jean-Remy Monnay said in Bill Buell’s recent preview of “Dead and Breathing,” “I love plays that teach and educate; stories that bring together people regardless of your race, culture, sexual orientation, religion, etcetera. Plays about accepting one’s way of life. ‘Dead and Breathing’ covers all that.”
It does indeed, and it does so in about 85 minutes. Deftly. Humorously. Provocatively. Sometimes movingly.
And because it’s only a two-character play, each has a lot to do to get it all done.
Carolyn Whitlock (Barbara Howard) is a 75-year-old black woman of enormous means: $87 million plus a fabulous house adorned with African art. She’s also a widow with uterine cancer, eager to end it all with the help of a hospice caregiver: assisted suicide.
She has gone through 16 caregivers, she boasts to #17, Veronika Fern (Sade Thompson), evidently proud of her imperious ways. The phone call to her lawyer shows exactly how difficult a person she is. And when she says to Veronika that “she’s as stupidly sentimental as the rest” and that “Everyone’s a lying freak; you just got caught at it,” we know that Carolyn is one tough cookie.
Veronika, on the other hand, a younger black woman who has come up the hard way — little education, sketchy family background, loss, less-than-modest means — uses her Christian faith to navigate a path through life and to encourage her dying patients not to give up.
In the course of sparring with each other, which includes a startling discovery two-thirds of the way through that propels the play to a satisfying conclusion (with a touch of O. Henry about it), these two use their experiences and intellects to argue their points.
Playwright Chisa Hutchinson takes us through this cat-and-mouse game with confidence, if not always success (like a prayer that Veronika delivers).
Thompson scores with a raucous, expressive, and earnest portrayal of Veronika. If at times during Thursday’s opening I felt that her performance would benefit from a little more breathing room, especially when Veronika is registering what Carolyn is saying and then forming a response, I think this fine actress will find the right beats as the show’s run continues.
Howard plays much of the show sitting up in bed, but that’s a fine throne from which to pontificate. And she does. Howard reveals all of this harridan’s crankiness and sarcasm, replete with foul language, but when the time comes to show her cracked heart, Howard does. Sometimes I watched Howard when Thompson was speaking, and I could see in her eyes Carolyn’s brain working and working, assessing, preparing.
Monnay brings out a nice balance between the extroverted Veronika and the buttoned-up Carolyn.
A word about the 70-seat studio space: interestingly, as in the old Cap Rep theater, there are a couple of poles that can hinder your view. They did ours, so we shifted seats. As time goes on, I think that blocking with sight lines in mind will improve. Also, the chairs are on one level: no stadium seating. Of course, having nothing permanent is the point of a black box theater; again, time will tell.
In the meantime, check out “Dead and Breathing,” an arresting and often wildly funny night in the theater.
‘Dead and Breathing’
WHERE: Lauren and Harold Iselin Studio, Capital Repertory Theatre, 251 N. Pearl St., Albany
WHEN: Through Oct. 24
HOW MUCH: $22.50-$17.50
MORE INFO: blacktheatretroupeupstateny.org, or proctors.org
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