Art News

Suzanne Nepi's Pandemic Trauma Is Brought to Life in The COVID Wife

Neil Truglio
Suzanne Nepi and Tanis Joaquin Gonzales rehearse The COVID Wife.
In October 2020, Denver actress Suzanne Nepi was thrust into the national spotlight after her husband, Mark Nepi, was hospitalized on a ventilator with COVID-19 and a video of him went viral. Now, more than two years later, Suzanne is sharing her inspiring story about resilience in the face of tragedy with The COVID Wife. The play, which she wrote and stars in, premieres at Benchmark Theatre on Friday, November 11, and will run through December 10.

"We're still at the point where people need a good COVID story," Suzanne remarks. The play showcases her experience of being separated from her husband while he was in the hospital and having to help him fight for his life.

The COVID Wife is the final production of Benchmark's "Aftermath" season, which was inspired by the theater's inactivity during the pandemic as well as the political and social discussions that arose after the shutdown. "We never want to be in the business of throwing a dart at a board and just picking a play for fun," explains Neil Truglio, artistic director of Benchmark and director of The COVID Wife. "We have the opportunity to take a risk and tell exciting new stories that other theaters are unable to do because they have to sell 500 tickets."

When the pandemic hit, Suzanne and Mark took the outbreak seriously. Yet, like too many, they caught the virus. Although Suzanne’s case was mild, Mark’s was much more serious. He had been an active runner, biker, swimmer and mountain climber as an adult, so he couldn’t understand how he was so sick.

While Mark initially tried to fight the disease at their house, "I told him, 'We don’t know what’s going on in your body, and I don’t want you to die at home,'" Suzanne recalls.

Mark agreed to be checked into Littleton Adventist Hospital on October 9, 2020; he ended up spending nearly five weeks there. For three of those weeks, he was hooked up to a ventilator and fighting for his life. "I was 3.3 miles from the hospital, but it might as well have been 300 miles away," Suzanne reflects. While Mark was in the ICU, she was in isolation because of her own COVID case. She begged the hospital to allow her to visit, but "the only way you can visit is to say goodbye," she says.

Mark wanted to spread the word about how serious COVID was, but he couldn't while battling the disease in a hospital bed. "It's a cliché, but in a crisis, people need to turn good from bad," Suzanne says. By writing about her husband's situation on Facebook when he couldn’t, she was helping to empower him.

"I knew that I was sharing Mark’s story six months into the pandemic, when a lot of people still didn’t know anyone with COVID," she reflects, "but I never imagined my family’s experience would influence the national conversation."

Suzanne posted about her husband’s situation on October 13, 2020, the couple’s thirtieth wedding anniversary; the original Facebook post has more than 545 likes and 389 comments and has been re-shared 72 times. Locally, the story was picked up by Denver 7 News, and Governor Jared Polis shared updates about the Nepis on his social media accounts.

But then the story went national, after ABC World News Tonight anchor David Muir shared a clip of Mark’s now-viral remark from his hospital bed, in which he calls out former President Donald Trump, saying, "This is not fake news, this is not the flu." Suddenly, it wasn’t just Suzanne and the medical staff encouraging Mark; their friends, family members and strangers from across the world were encouraging him to fight on.

While Suzanne was humbled by the outpouring of love, "I still felt like I was in a bubble," she says. "It felt like it was me, Mark and the medical team fighting COVID, each in isolation." After a rough night on the ventilators on Halloween, Mark declared that he was done with treatment and asked the doctors to remove him from the ventilators.

Fortunately, the treatment had been effective, and Mark survived his battle with COVID. While some side effects are still present, he is now healthy enough to once again enjoy biking, running and swimming.

After Mark was back home from the hospital, Suzanne and Truglio had their first meeting to discuss adapting her story for the stage. "You would not believe the number of people who have asked when I’m going to write a book or screenplay or one-woman show about my experience," Suzanne says. "People kept telling me I needed to share this inspirational tale with a larger audience."

Truglio was confident the story would make interesting theater. “If there is a national story here, there is a local story there," Truglio says. "Theater allows us to tell stories about issues that are immediately impacting our audience members here in Denver."

When Benchmark held its public call for play suggestions, Suzanne submitted her timely story idea for The COVID Wife, and her play was chosen to be developed for the theater's 2021-2022 season.

Because the plot covers her real life, Suzanne knew she had to approach the play from a place of honesty and reality. "I’m kind of old-school," Suzanne says. "Before working with Neil earlier this year on Our American Cousin: A Nation Divided, I had never done any devised work [in which the script and performance are collaborative], much less written anything about my life. But this whole devised-theater process has been a wonderful journey, and proves you can teach an old dog new tricks!"

The COVID Wife blends conversations with monologues and explores Suzanne’s role as a public figure who is going through a deeply personal crisis. The cast comprises Suzanne as herself and Tanis Joaquin Gonzales playing an array of characters, including Mark, doctors, ICU nurses, family members and friends. "We went through five different drafts to make it what it is now," Suzanne says. "I’m not telling Mark’s story; that's his to tell. This is my lens of Mark’s story."

One of the directorial inspirations for the piece is Moisés Kaufman's 2000 play The Laramie Project. Kaufman’s work is also based on a real-life tragedy, and all of the dialogue is pulled from hundreds of interviews with Laramie citizens. "It has to always be real," Truglio says. "While we occasionally take some dramatic license, we do not deviate from what's real." It was important to both Suzanne and Truglio that they didn't fabricate any stories or change the way events happened for dramatic effect.

"Neil is great at providing a framework, and he's helped me bring elements of entertainment into the script," Suzanne says, adding that she appreciates how supportive and sensitive Truglio and the Benchmark team were while bringing her real-life experience to the stage. She admits that “adapting your life story is daunting, amazing and a little bit triggering. So I am just thankful for how protective the whole team has been over me and my family’s story."

Truglio adds that it's particularly special that Denver audiences will be able to see the new work starring the woman it's about. "Even if you see this play in the future, you’ll never see it with this woman ever again," he remarks. "Audiences know that cool premieres with the original actors happen in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, but now that is happening in Denver, with the real woman in the city where her story takes place."

A few people who have had an experience similar to Suzanne's during the pandemic have reached out to her to ask whether they should attend this show, because they're worried it might be difficult to relive.

"While this play might be painful, it's worth it," Suzanne promises, "because it's a story of inspiration, motivation, empowerment and resilience. ... It’s a hard world, but there are many warriors among us, and this is our tale."

The COVID Wife, Friday, November 11, through Saturday, December 10; 8 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday, at Benchmark Theatre, 1560 Teller Street, Lakewood. For tickets and more information, go to Benchmark Theatre’s website.