David Lee Nelson

For Piccolo Spoleto 2018, Pure Theatre presents David Lee Nelson in "Stages," a comedy about cancer.

David Lee Nelson’s performance in the world premiere of his play “Stages” begins with such ease and humor that it’s easy to forget the play is about his cancer.

In the autobiographical one-man show, Nelson tells of his experience stage by stage: from learning he has cancer and receiving treatment to coming to terms with the uncertainty of his future. His background in stand-up comedy provides the perfect balance to such heavy subject matter.

The stage at Pure Theatre is set for a stereotypical comedy performance, with a lone stool and bottle of water. Behind Nelson images designed by director Adam Knight and sound designer Miles Boinest are projected, at times functioning like graphics on “The Daily Show” — a bit goofy to emphasize a joke. Other times, the projections are more personal, showing pictures of Nelson’s medical journey.

Nelson’s engrossing and personable delivery makes the show feel a little like an intimate family slide show.

He shifts effortlessly from the comic to the serious and back again, well illuminated by Lauren Duffie’s lighting design, which narrows to an intense focus on Nelson during moments when the comedy drops away.

Anticipation builds as the audience waits for Nelson to bring back the jokes, which he always does. He never lets the weight of his ordeal feel burdensome to the audience.

The show functions as an ode to his girlfriend, family and friends who supported him throughout the process. Nelson isn’t putting on this play so people will feel sorry for him; this is no pity party. He’s inviting the audience in as friends.

There are moments that threaten to go on too long, especially in the heat of Pure Theatre, but then Nelson drops in a perfectly timed joke. Those jokes sometimes provoke genuine hilarity and sometimes a sympathetic laugh meant to keep one from crying.

“Stages” is a compelling play because of the truth found beneath the laughs. Nelson is using comedy and self-deprecation to tell his story, but also self-reflection.

“Stages” has performances at 8 p.m. May 30; 6 p.m. May 31; 6 p.m. June 1; 8 p.m. June 2; 5 p.m. June 3; 6 p.m. June 6; 6 p.m. June 7; and 6 p.m. June 9, all at Pure Theatre, 477 King St. Go to piccolospoleto.com for tickets.

Reviewer J.R. Pierce is a Goldring Arts Journalist at Syracuse University.

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