It can be shocking to realize what you can’t see when you look at a person. Usually when I look at people, I see a haircut and a pair of jeans. People at the grocery store, driving cars, shopping. You see the exterior and then there’s no more time. Rarely is there a chance to hear their stories. A person is much more than a pair of jeans and a haircut. Breathe: A True Story, a one-man show written and performed by Brennen Reeves and directed by David Lee Nelson, offers a chance to see beyond the exterior. With quirky dark humor and simple storytelling, Reeves proves that you should never judge a book by its cover.
Reeves is a small guy. He’s got blonde hair, freshly cut and styled. When the lights come on at the top of the show, he is standing center stage in jeans and a hospital gown. Within five minutes, you learn that this seemingly healthy looking 23 year old was born with cystic fibrosis and, when he was 18 years old, had double-pulmonary transplant surgery—a double-lung transplant. This news is a shock in itself, but what is even more striking is the way he communicates it. He recalls the moment when the nurse explained to him that he would need this surgery if he was going to make it past his 18th birthday—sitting in his hospital bed, eating a Quesadilla Explosion Salad...“You know? From Chili’s.” This is just an early example of the twisted hilarity of his story, which uses dark humor to uplifting effect.
Aided by not much more than an easel, some posters, and an oxygen machine, Reeves walks the audience through his life story—living with cystic fibrosis and impending doom. The posters are used as hilarious commentary, pictures and phrases that wonderfully punctuate the story. Theatre 220 at the College of Charleston offers a stark environment, not unsimilar to a hospital room, and made even more visceral by a chorus of monitor beeps. The soundtrack, compiled by Miles Boinest (PURE Theatre), includes songs by Cake and Tears For Fears, apt choices for this perverse comedy. The simplicity of the set and the bareness of the space offer a perfect environment to listen to and absorb his words without distraction.
These are not stories you will hear often, at least not with this amount of humor. He tells of a depressingly revelatory Christmas, watching Touched by an Angel (his mom’s favorite TV show) and realizing that the kid in the episode was just like him. Merry Christmas! He revisits a conversation with his family’s priest shortly before his surgery, which he recalls as both calming and terrifying, and in which he says to the priest frankly, “Of course I’m scared—look at what you’re wearing.” The laughter elicited from the audience in these moments is both nervous and self-conscious, but warranted. It is the kind of comedy that makes you think twice about why you are actually laughing.
Reeves is compelling enough on stage that you want to keep listening, but there is no pity here. His sense of humor is like impenetrable armor against it. There is an acceptance of self, mostly evident in this strength through comedy, which is what ultimately makes this performance so fascinating. It is also what makes the more sombre moments even more touching and illuminating. Even at its most serious, Breathe will surprise you with its lightheartedness. The photography series ‘Humans of New York’ is similar to Breathe in this way, as they both bridge the gap between what you see and what is underneath. You see the photographs of "ordinary, everyday people" and then read what they have to say, and your perception is drastically changed. You would never know Reeves's story if you saw him at the store or walking down the street. It is only through his words and his need and ability to share them that we are allowed that chance. It is artistic work of this nature that cultivates empathy. In the end, I found myself laughing at my small superficial judgments of other people. The world is much too big, beautiful, brutal, and bizarre for that sort of thing.
May 22, 23, 25, 28, 29, 30, 31 and June 3, 5, 6 @ Theatre 220 at the College of Charleston- Second Floor- 54 St. Philip Street