note: entire contents copyright 1999 by Beverly Creasey
The cover of this week's New York Magazine announces the cure for cancer in big red letters. Dr. Cordon-Card of Memorial Sloan Kettering predicts "the global conquering of cancer in 5 - 10 years" --- which seems a bit ironic and downright unfair when a friend has just died from ovarian cancer.
I think most women have a deep, unspoken fear of breast or ovarian cancer --- especially those of a certain age contemplating hormone replacement. You can eat right, you can exercise, you can stop smoking, but you can't do anything about hormone replacements that increase your risk of developing breast or endometrial cancer; and that explains why just about every woman who has asked me about "Wit" asks "Is it scary?" We women would rather read about cancer, thus keeping it on an intellectual plane, than deal with it emotionally. Well, I'm here to say "Wit" is an intelligent, remarkable and brutally honest play about cancer, but it's not Scary!
The central character is a professor, and the clever conceit of the play is her attempt to intellectualize what is happening to her --- so you can watch "Wit" without fear of getting sick to your stomach from empathizing too closely with her. The play certainly has its lacerating moments: For example, when the professor gets the chemo she shakes so severely it seems the stage will collapse around her. But playwright Margaret Edson has crafted her drama so that you're busy thinking about the significance of the shakes -- i.e. the dramatic stage of development: the play is almost over --- that you don't have time to turn the action inward on yourself.
What is quite brilliant about Edson's play is the matter-of-fact portrait of the medical establishment. Even pleasant doctors are happy to subject a dying woman to the unspeakable pain of chemo- and radiation-therapies, even though they know it's futile. Edson never spells this out; she just lays out the facts and lets us draw our own conclusions.
Not for nothing is the heroine named Vivian Bearing. She is of the most regal, professorial bearing, and Judith Light gives a luminous performance as this doomed Doctor of Literature. Her voice lowered, her gorgeous mane missing, Light embodies the hard-won righteousness of a self-made woman.
Edson smartly pits metaphysical poetry against metastic cancer, and the fight is a good one. I hate to depart from the professor's beloved John Donne, but Edson's play is really the professors last "rage against the dying of the light". At play's start she declares that she is a force --- and we meet the various characters who try to reckon with her. We see the "farfetched wit" cancer inspires, but especially the kindness from a nurse who lovingly caresses Dr. Bearing's sleeping hands with lotion. Lisa Tharps shines in this role of a sweet, tenacious nurse who dares call the professor "Sweetie" and means it..
Director Derek Anson Jones paces the play so deftly that when Bearing complains that time goes so slowly we feel it, and when her life is cut short the play hurtles toward its relentless end. Myung Hee Cho's pale green and blinding white hospital set is aided by Michael Chybowski's unflinching light, which at play's end makes the professor's resurrection and ascent to heaven positively redemptive