BREATHE, A New Musical. A Review by Laurie Kagay
A few months ago, I was standing in the dentist office with my three kids. I began filling out the routine paperwork. After marking “none of the above” for the litany of potential health issues children encounter, for each of my three children, something happened in me. I was filled with a deep weightiness. Three times, I thought. I just marked that my kids have no health issues three times. None. Over the years, at doctors and dentists, I’d filled out the very same paperwork without considering its significance, but on this particular day, I stood crying in the dentist office. I wasn’t sure if I felt thankful, or indebted, or something else entirely. I just know that this moment was a rare gift.
I thought of the many mothers who cannot mark “no health issues,” even once. The mothers that suffer through even the most routine visits, having to explain why their child can’t talk yet, or explain a rare condition, or list surgeries their baby had bravely endured. The inconvenience of changing physicians, only to have to go through the whole story all over again. The long days of driving to see experts. I’ve never had to do any of it. And while I’m thankful to God for that, it also makes me want to do better to serve those who do have to do it, all the time.
Last weekend I saw BREATHE: A New Musical, written by Gregg D. Garner and performed at the Arts at Center Street. This musical did to audiences what that moment in the dentist office did to me, and more. It took viewers out of their often comfortable experiences, and into a world where kids get sick (really sick). In the play program, Garner writes that the musical is a response to his greatest fear. “The mortal blows of life experience chip away at the fortitude of youthful optimism, and as a husband of 18 years, and a father to five kids (one is due this month), I have six powerful reasons to be afraid.” Cue tears, already.
The opening song, Breathe, takes viewers on a journey from the most optimistic (and normal) morning, where everyone is hustling to get ready for work, with their concerns being where they placed their phone or coffee, to the kind of disruption no one predicts--where a child jumping rope is suddenly rushed to the ER. As a mom and visitor to the ER a time or two, it’s never the day you expect. Even with the most basic injuries (or freak accidents, in the case of my children), you’re thrown off course. Rudely reminded: life is more fragile than we realize.
Garner’s play incorporates a wide variety of characters: kids, their parents, a janitor, a teacher, a mom, a CEO, and a variety of hospital personnel. Each of them are touched by the same mortal blow: they don’t have control, not even the doctors... even the most talented doctor, Morten Walker. Different characters reach for that control in different ways: vying for position, choosing sensible “realism,” or my favorite outlook, typified in Charity Walker, played by Tori Roufs. “Cher” chooses faith against the odds, even in the midst of other people telling her she needs to be more realistic with the chances. Cher is a great mom who teaches us a profound lesson: in the midst of a very complicated world, worrying will get you nowhere. Dance parties will help.
BREATHE was like that, constantly moving you from light hearted laughable moments to tears, with more speed than you could predict. For me, most effectively in the “Dream Song,” which was a heartbreaking look into the effect of illness on the lives of children, but sung to a quite upbeat tune with perfect dramatic touches and choreography.
I can’t say too much without giving away the story (I know the production is finished, but I’m subtly hinting that it should be picked back up, perhaps in a bigger theater since all their shows were sold out). What I can say is that it was wonderful. I was truly impressed with the talent of the cast, and most notably the lead: Skylar Aaseby, a triple threat. His relationship to his friends, his wife, and the medical professionals he works with every day was so honest and relatable, you couldn’t help but laugh. But the story is just as notable a feat as its execution, or perhaps moreso.
BREATHE was able to take me back to that moment in the dentist office and attribute even more significance to it. I was no longer just able to say “I’ve been so protected from my greatest fear.” Instead, I was given a window into families who deal with illness every day, as well as the notable second families (compassionate health care providers) who care for them. I gained far more than an awareness of their journey, I gained their soundtrack, their heart’s cry.
But there were other members of the audience much stronger than I. Mothers and fathers and sisters and brothers who know those hospital rooms too well. The cast themselves were so moved by the story that they offered personal invitations to friends and family members who’ve had to brave this journey. On any given night, there were audience members present who were able to watch their own stories play out before them on the stage: the mother of a toddler leukemia survivor, a mother of an infant with a rare genetic condition, others with chronic illness, and still more who’ve won, or lost, the battle to live. From what I witnessed, this production was a gift to them as well. As one mother told me, “When this is your everyday, there are only so many moments you can process. Most of the time, you’re just holding your breath, you’re surviving.” Garner gave these precious families a gift as well--he gave them words they may not have formed yet, he gave the world a window into their struggle. He reminded them that they have to breathe, and also to dance.
BREATHE was an invitation to do more than watch and think, “What if it was me?” but instead to do good on behalf of those who struggle to be well.
“I’m gonna do good.
I’m gonna excel.
Not for myself,
But for others to be well.”
We’re not all doctors, but we’re all people, capable of a compassionate touch, or a listening ear. We’re capable of walking that short journey down the hall, or down our street, or downtown, to give company to those who are dreaming of a world without pain.