Two video monitors hang high on the walls of Benchmark Theatre Company’s intimate, black rectangle of a theater. “Nepi Talk: In Sickness and in Health” the slides read in a font similar to the one that heralds a TED Talk. Another slide brings a little more attitude: “Nepi Talk: Finding Your Inner Badass.”
Local actor Suzanne Nepi has the onstage prowl of those typically one-person riffs down: the stride, the eye contact, the pregnant pauses that suggest a confessional intimacy but also storytelling authority.
In the world premiere of “The COVID Wife” — written by Nepi and nurtured by the rightly ambitious Lakewood theater company — the actor portrays herself. The show’s intimacy and Nepi’s command of her character are hard-earned.
In October 2020, Nepi’s husband of 30 years, Mark, was rushed to Littleton’s Adventist Hospital with life-threatening complications from COVID-19. When Nepi wrote a strongly worded Facebook post — sharing what she and their children were facing and expressing fury at those of her fellow citizens who denied the seriousness of the virus — it went viral. (You may recall her and Mark’s story from local or national news pieces.)
The play covers the details of the harrowing three weeks in which Mark was in intensive care with journalistic attention. For anyone who has ever had to make medical decisions for a loved one who may not be able to, Nepi’s fight to keep Mark off a ventilator will ring sad and true. So, too, will her deep dive into the statistics, outcomes and vitals associated with COVID.
At a period during the pandemic when hospital ICUs were struggling with a surge in cases and a loved one was allowed to visit only to say goodbye, Nepi had to depend on the phone and Zoom.
“The COVID Wife” is a memory piece, to be sure. It navigates how the playwright/performer’s past experiences with hospitals and medical crises (a miscarriage, an emergency C-section, her first blinding migraine) informed the woman now sitting with her laptop and phone at the ready. So, this is what that vow of “in sickness and in health” looks like in practice.
The play is also a deeply felt and frank tribute to health-care workers. Actor Tanis Joaquin Gonzales does nimble work portraying the many medical staffers Nepi was tethered to during Mark’s ICU stay as well as those she encountered during her own medical crises long before COVID raged. Gonzales embodies concerned if stern doctors but also exhausted, sympathetic respiratory therapists as well as psychologists, making each a distinct character.
A champion of visual storytelling, director Neil Truglio utilizes clips and projections to buttress Nepi’s tale. Most of these gestures — Mark in a BIPAC oxygen mask giving his wife a thumbs up — add to the play. Occasionally, the images — for instance, a broadcast of a Trump-Biden debate — draw attention away from Nepi’s nuanced language.
As personal as “The COVID Wife” is, the play makes the case that another actor could step into the role of Suzanne — it’s that well-structured. What is perhaps most remarkable about this maiden production, then, is that Nepi — so soon after the trauma and the triumph — was able to.
If you go
“The COVID Wife.” Written by Suzanne Nepi. Directed by Neil Truglio. Featuring Nepi and Tanis Joaquin Gonzales. Through Dec. 10 at Benchmark Theatre Company, 1560 Teller St., Lakewood. benchmarktheatre.com
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