note: entire contents copyright 2000 by Joe Coyne
I decided not to write about "Wit". I had seen the play in a more intimate setting than the Wilbur Theatre with Frances West as the cancer patient, recording the final two hours' traffic in the life of the cold and rigid PhD, Vivian Bearings. Both productions were humbling and effective. Ms. Light's portrayal of Bearing captured the patient's severe intellectualization of life, yet she failed to cross over into the belated softening of attitudes that helped her gain "redemption". In the closing scenes Ms. Light was able to make her body frail and seem smaller in the hospital bed with the baseball cap atop her radiated head appearing all the larger. I watched Ms Light, while with Ms West I shared. The general outline of the story is known to many: insidious cancer and its pernicious treatments that will claim one out of four in every audience.
It is the darkest of comedies, brilliantly written glimpsing a variety of side topics: patient rights, hospital practices, death with dignity. The play written by Margaret Edson won the Pulitzer Prize in 1999, with the unlikely humorous exploration of stage-four metastatic ovarian cancer. Its focus is on Bearing's experimental treatment with a life threatening chemotherapy program causing her to reassess life choices. Too late does the redemption occur, but occur it does. Much of the play's dialogue is directed at the audience in a manner that Bearing's precancerous mind set would not have permitted. Haughty and Brahmain her theological contact was that of 17th century versification and more than likely transmitted via the Lodges. Now rather than finding respite in metaphysical conceit or wit, she is listening to Susie, the staff nurse, tell Popsicle tales. It is Susie who holds an answer to the riddle, a simple approach really: simplicity of caring. Being extremely smart does not take care of it. We all possess a heart, if you let it emerge.
I hold little truck with deathbed redemptions. I don't belief Bearing would trade in her renowned scholar status for a chance to enter a relationship. You have to compromise when you deal with the living; John Donne is to be interpreted not understood. Like Hamlet, Bearing has a noble heart, but what of it.
Why then the change in my decision and write this? At 5:00 this morning I was hooked up to tubes and wires and monitors at a local hospital, a research hospital. While in fear that I had a serious condition, I could not stop laughing each time a line directly from "Wit" was asked of me. It would be presumptuous to think that my experiences were in anyway comparable to "Wit". But amid my mixed feelings, I was thinking of redemption and possible non deathbed transformations. I did not want to be uncompromising and dead from the neck down. I want to learn the lesson that Dr. Bearing was not able to learn until too late.
To continue Ms Edson's metaphor, "Nothing but a breath ----a comma ---- separates life from life everlasting." Without the least understanding of John Donne and his all of his Holy Sonnets, I want to lessen insuperable barriers I have erected and gain a view of this simplicity of life and of the value of meaningful human contact. During the play, I had been reminded of the death of Snowden in Heller's "Catch 22" with Yossarian saying the same lines Ms Edson gives to Dr. Bearing's professor. Lines of possible consolation, but to whom: "There, there. There, there". Yossarian learns Snowden's "grim secret" which could be life affirming.
It was easy to read the message in his entrails. Man was matter, that was Snowden's secret. Drop him out a window and he'll fall. Set fire to him and he'll burn. Bury him and he'll rot, like other kinds of garbage. The spirit gone, man is garbage. That was Snowden's secret. Ripeness was all.
The spirit not gone, how to discover its possibility. If discovered, how to retain it each day.
I fear the playwright, Ms Edson, will pull a Harper Lee and limit her output to the one work retaining her 1,000 average. If she does half as well the next time around, it will merely be excellent. "Wit" is at the Wilbur Theatre through February 27th. Joe Coyne