Breathe Love Repeat: a near-life experience

More than anything else, Breathe, Love, Repeat stands as an elegy for Suzen Murakoshi’s mother—a woman with whom Murakoshi clearly had a loving, complex, fraught relationship and who died in a dignified, graceful way, surrounded by her children. While by no means idealizing or sugar-coating her mother, Murakoshi’s portrait—in both the writing and her performance as her mother—clearly shows the love and respect she had for her, as well as her admiration for the way her mother chose to approach her own dying. The structure of the piece can be choppy, and there are a few confusing choices made about what to put in and leave out, but it’s a heartfelt, emotionally resonant tribute to a person clearly enormously influential in Murakoshi’s life.

Murakoshi begins at her mother’s deathbed and then cuts back in time to the last trip she and her mother had taken only a brief time earlier (one in a series of many exotic trips the two had taken together, one of the ways Murakoshi has attempted to make up for settling in New York, 5,000 miles from Hawaii, where she’d grown up and where her mother lived). Other trips had taken them to the Canadian side (the “good side”) of Niagara Falls, or to Australia—this one, though, marks Murakoshi’s first visit to Japan, a place she’s always been a little anxious about visiting because, unlike her mother, she speaks no Japanese.  But the trip, taken in the depths of winter, is magical (and the descriptions of snowfall in the Niseko mountains, especially snow falling into a hot-spring pool, showcase some of the piece’s finest writing). Even the fact that the mother is having a little difficulty breathing—the first symptom of late-diagnosed lung and liver cancer that will kill her only a few months later—doesn’t spoil the trip.

When Murakoshi returns home and shortly thereafter hears from her mother that she’s been diagnosed with cancer, her first reaction is disbelief. But she’s rapidly forced not only to accept the situation, but to travel back to Hawaii and become her mother’s strongest advocate, her companion, and the one who makes it possible for her mother to die in the way she would like to: in her own home, without excessive painkillers.

One thing that’s missing from the story, though: the tracking of Murakoshi’s journey from refusal to accept that her mother is sick to not only acceptance but active advocacy and care management. It feels like an important step in the emotional arc, and a notable absence from the piece. Seeing a little of that journey might also add even more punch to the already pleasing figure of “Samurai Super-Daughter,” a character Murakoshi channels, only partly in jest, when she needs to wade into battle with the health care establishment and call up greater-than-usual reserves of strength to make something happen for her mother.

Details from the last month of her mother’s life are limned with a keen eye and enormous compassion: the process of finding a hospice placement but then becoming increasingly disillusioned with the hospice’s insistence on giving patients morphine; Murakoshi’s respect for the way her mother methodically reaches out to forgive old debts and settle old arguments; the different attitudes different caregivers have to both their patients and to the dying process.

While the content comes from both a deep well of emotion and sharp observations, the form and structure of the show can get a little murky. Transitions in and out of different characters and different scenes are handled in a number of different ways; I found myself wishing Murakoshi and director Ching Valdes-Aran had been more specific with their conventions and vocabulary for the overall piece.

Breathe, Love, Repeat closes with a deeply moving slide show of images from throughout Murakoshi’s mother’s life—from childhood through her wedding through many of the trips described earlier in the piece. The images help fill out the life we only see in its last few months—and left me wanting to know the character even better. It’s a touching and evocative act of remembrance.