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“Dead and Breathing” offers a moral dilemma at Capital Rep’s new black box theatre

Sade Thompson(L) and  Barbara Howard (R) in a scene from "Dead and Breathing"
Willie Davis Short
Capital Rep
Sade Thompson(L) and Barbara Howard (R) in a scene from "Dead and Breathing"

“Dead and Breathing” is the first production in the black box theater of Capital Repertory Theatre in Albany.

It is also the first play produced there by the Black Theatre Troupe of Upstate New York, a nonprofessional resident company working in their new home.

Both the material and the space have flaws. As should be expected, all first ventures face minor problems that time will overcome. And, both the theater company and the space show promise.

The space is the simplest fix for future shows. It needs either risers for the audience’s chairs or some elevation for the stage. At this production everything is on one level, so there are major line-of-sight problems.

Black box spaces are created to be refigured. It will get better.

The material will also change. Eventually larger cast shows will be offered. Not that they’ll automatically be better, but perhaps more visually interesting.

“Dead and Breathing” is a worthy opening. It only uses two actors and is loaded with ideas and moral dilemmas.

The primary debate is over the right of a person to opt to end their own life.

Carolyn Whitlock is 68 years old. Two years ago she was diagnosed with uterine cancer and given 6 months to live. Her demanding, cranky nature has already chased away 16 hospice workers.

Tired of waiting for death, she tries to bribe the 17th caregiver to euthanize her.

Veronika is a devout Christian and is repelled by the idea. That is until she learns the bribe is her being the sole beneficiary to Carolyn’s estate of 87-million dollars, not counting her mansion.

Veronika, who has led a horrid impoverished life, strikes a deal with her super-privileged, non-religious employer.

Veronika cares little about Carolyn’s life; it is her soul that matters. She will take Carolyn’s life only if she repents her sinful past and embrace God.

Clearly the discussions and debates that follow are wide-ranging and often provocative. More important, we learn about both women who, except for their African-American heritage, have little in common.

The direction by Jean-Remy Monnay creates two women whom you want to be friends. You’re even ambiguous as to whether or not Veronika’s doing Carolyn’s bidding to assist in her death is an act of friendship.

Played by Sade’ Thompson, Veronika is a person whose hard life has made her confident in her choices, some being dramatically life-changing.

However, despite her unsophisticated manner as indicated by her crude speech, she is a sensitive individual who is not to be bullied into an action in which she does not believe. It’s a convincing portrayal of a tough woman who wants to be loved.

Barbara Holland brings an almost regal sense of sophistication to Carolyn a woman who, though enormously rich, has always lived the emptiest of lives.

She is very critical, demanding, sharp of tongue. But Holland brings a quality to the role that makes her almost vulnerable.

Making both women comfortable adversaries is a soothing choice for the audience, but it deprives the play’s action of some tension.

The play becomes almost solely a philosophical conflict of ideas. The addition of disagreeable personalities might add another element of passion to those ideas.

However, their relationship does permit a lot of needed humor to the proceedings.

It’s not until about two-thirds into the 90-minute play that a revelation adds a harshness into the relationship.

Though it adds an added level of provocation, it detracts from the central issues which are the meaning of life, the difference between an indulged life and privilege and redemption.

Regretfully, the important social issue becomes almost extraneous.

The need for characters to be cruel rather than just disagreeable comes when Holland makes a confession about the true reason she believes she deserves to die. Because we haven’t seen the individual she describes, it’s hard to believe or to even want to believe she is that person.

Worse, it makes the already disappointing and contrived ending less satisfying.

There are other plot flaws in the play, but overall there is more than enough thoughtful discussion on ethics and morality to make “Dead and Breathing” a welcome addition to the Capitol Rep family. The two very solid performances are even more satisfying.

It continues at Capital Repertory theater N. Pearl Street, Albany through October 24. Proof of vaccination is needed and face masks must be worn inside the theater.

Bob Goepfert is theater reviewer for the Troy Record.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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