Riverside’s ‘Stages’ is 75 minutes of honest human experience


Riverside Theatre — through March 15

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David Lee Nelson in ‘Stages.’ — Rob Merritt/Riverside Theatre

Riverside Theatre opened the Iowa premier of the one-man show Stages by David Lee Nelson on Feb. 28. Nelson’s show and performance are remarkable for several reasons. Co-created and directed with Riverside’s Producing Artistic Director, Stages is the chronicle of Nelson’s own lived experiences with stage four colon cancer. Nelson is both playwright and actor.

Stages is equal parts lecture, poem and comedy set, and autobiography throughout. Nelson shares his journey as he was diagnosed and treated colon cancer, shares his life and the people in his life with the audience — but really what he shares is the human experience. At the heart of Nelson’s performance are profound questions: “What time do we have?” and “What do we do with it?”

Nelson was diagnosed with cancer at age 38, and his life totally shifted. He is living and creating as a person living with cancer — his advanced stage of cancer is about containment rather than cure. One of the things Nelson creates in this show is space to be vulnerable, including projections of pictures from his life, displayed as the show progresses.

David Lee Nelson in ‘Stages.’ — Rob Merritt/Riverside Theatre

His stories offer moments of reflection, fear and humor. This is truly a remarkable show because Nelson’s voice is honest, allowing the audience to look into his life, even to become part of it for the 75 minute show.

Nelson’s high-energy performance brings to life the blog in which he chronicled his journey and, in turn, the audience is able to see Nelson’s progress with compassion as well as humor. He recounts his experiences with surgery, remarking that there are surgeons who “know how to cut other people open, remove damaged parts of our bodies, put us back together, without killing us.”

“How amazing is that?” he asks.

David Lee Nelson in ‘Stages.’ — Rob Merritt/Riverside Theatre

He also discusses his chemotherapy, noting that he has become part of a club he never applied to be in, but in which he finds so many humbling human experiences. His performance includes subtle yet notable gratitude to his friends and family, not the least his partner, Jaimie.

The stage is set simply (Chris Rich) and lighting (Lauren Duffie) allows Nelson to be the center of attention while sharing pictures from his journey projected on a large screen. In sharing his story, Nelson is honest and clear and inviting. This is a show for anyone who has been touched by cancer, as Nelson covers the range of emotion, treatments and resilience that this disease requires.

In truth, this is a show for every human, as Nelson invites us all to consider the connections between disease and people and humanity.

Stages runs at Riverside Theatre through March 15; tickets are $10-30. This weekend offers opportunities to explore deeper. A panel discussion with the Holden Comprehensive Cancer Center follows the performance on Saturday, March 7, featuring Dr. Muneera R. Kapadia, Dr. Alan E. Gunderson and Dr. Saima Sharif. And after the Sunday, March 8 performance, there will be a talkback with Nelson and Andrea Wilson of the Iowa Writers’ House.

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