Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Wit"

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note: entire contents copyright 2005 by Larry Stark


by Margaret Edson
Directed by Celia Couture

Set Design by Douglas Cooper
Lighting Design by Eric Jacobsen
Sound/Audio-Visual Design by Bob Pascucci
Costume Design by Andrea Goodman
Makeup Design by Richard Sullivan
Props Design by Jennifer Bean
Production Managers Peter Ambler & Marlene Mandel
Stage Manager Judy Forgione

Vivian Bearing, PhD. ......Christine Connor
Harvey Kelekian, MD./Father...David Warnock
E. M. Ashford, PhD. .........Sandi McDonald
Jason Posner, MD. ............Judson Pierce
Susie Monahan, RN, BSN.........Kate Mahoney
Lab Technicians/Students/Residents/Code Team:
Jennifer Bubriski
Amy DeMarco
Kate Kisselstein
John Taoulsides

What can you call a play in which the heroine dies at the end?
At the Arlington Friends of The Drama they call it "Wit".
It is an ensemble work about the death of a woman in the terminal stages of ovarian cancer who explains that she isn't in an ICU because of the cancer but because the cancer-fighting drugs are killing her. It is an ensemble work just as Shakespeare's is an ensemble work about the death of King Lear.
I call it ... sublime.

Vivian Bearing, PhD., like Lear, must gradually divest herself of everything, at last including life itself. Like Lear, this is a scholar ruling her field of expertise with autocratic pride. The ironic contempt with which she eviscerates a student asking an extension on a paper (John Taoulsides) may come from her fierce dedication to John Donne's poetry; her icy wit, however, escapes the bloodied boy as much as it does most of her students.

Playwright Margaret Edson allows the mind of Vivian Bearing to step from the bed while the body of Vivian Bearing is incoherent with pain, or comatose with liver-failure, or throwing up after three days with no food. She acts out memories, lectures at one point pointedly on the verse beginning "Death be not proud... " and grudgingly must admit to terror of travel to that bourn from which no traveller returns. She re-lives the two events that shaped her life --- sitting literally at her father's feet learning from him (David Warnock) and Beatrix Potter that words (like "soporific") have meanings; then accepting a lecture from her mentor (Sandi McDonald) berating the slovenly thinking of her excellent mind. She chafes at becoming an impersonally manipulated Thing in the hands of her doctor (David Warnock again) and his ambitious young assistant (Judson Pierce) who take pride in her ability to survive eight experimental "tratments" which, while reducing the cancer, usually killed patients long before an eighth dose. She shares a soothing popsicle with her helping, human nurse (Kate Mahoney) who admits "I don't know what 'soporific' means, but that stuff will really make you sleepy!" And she lectures to them as students, endures their "grand rounds" inspections as resident doctors, and becomes the center of their attention as they ("Code Blue") fight her cardiac arrest, as Jennifer Bubriski, Amy DeMarco, Kate Kisselstein and John Taoulsides fill the stage again and again with real people in several costumes.

I have seen this play twice --- and first at Ye Wilbur Theatre. It has become a classic in that the same text can leave completely different impressions depending on what might be emphasized. One may find in it a grumpy diatribe against the emotional indifference of doctors toward their patients, or the ultimate humbling of an autocratic egotist.
In this case, Director Celia Couture has emphasized Prof. Bearing's tiredness, her fragility, and her wit. And in doing so she has underscored for this unreconstructed atheist something I had never fully realized: In insisting on a comma in John Donne's poem, Christine Connor as Vivian Bearing also insists, with the poet, that death is not a Full Stop, but a quick transition into something else. And since, throughout this production, Christine Connor is, at every turn, an understandably human person, she allows the audience to participate with her in this inevitable journey.

And I call that journey ... sublime.


"Wit" (7 - 16 October)
22 Academy Street, ARLINGTON CENTER MA

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England's LIVE Theater Guide