Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Wit"

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note: entire contents copyright 1999 By Alan W. Petrucelli

It's 'Wit,' Not Judith, That's Light

By Alan W. Petrucelli

Dr. Vivian Bearing is a 50-year-old professor and an expert on the work of the 17th-century poet John Donne. She has verve. Sass. Sardonic humor. And wit. She also has a bald head -- the result of stage four metastatic ovarian cancer ... as she likes to say, "there is no stage five."

There, in a few brief words, is the premise of "Wit", a bold, brazen, often frustrating and economically -staged play starring small-screen icon Judith Light that's taken up residency at Boston's Wilbur Theatre through February 27.

Who's the boss these days in theater circles? It very often is "Wit"; the first play written by Margaret Edson, a 38-year-old kindergarten teacher who lives in Atlanta ... the same Margaret Edson who won a Pulitzer Prize for Drama for the same play. And everyone is buzzing -- especially those who never buzz -- about the "nude scene:" during the very last moments of the play, right after Bearing/Light dies (I am giving nothing away folks; Bearing/Light announces to the audience at the play's onset that "it is not my intention to give away the plot, but I think I die at the end"), Bearing/Light sheds her hospital gowns, unfolds her arms and stretches upward, in full frontal view, like the proverbial phoenix, as nude as the day she was born. "Wit" presents no answers, but it rightfully tosses out more questions to ask and suggestions on how to ask them. It is presented without intermission; perhaps trimming a good 20 minuets would have tightened the sense of redundancy. Edson takes a look at denial and acceptance as much as she probes the bodily humiliations and linguistic outrages ("How are we feeling today?") of Bearing's treatment in the research hospital, but the constant onslaught and symbolism (the students, one of whom was once taught by her, reading her as she once read poems; she becoming a subject to be taught; the academic world's impersonal nature vs. the medical world's calculated tactics) dilute the power for which the playwright is striving.

Please understand that I am not, in any way, dismissing its subject matter or the effect it seems to be having on its audiences. Dying is tough stuff. Painful. Horrible. Cancer is an enemy no woman, man, child, even dog or ferret, should experience. But even such a serious subject matter cannot hide the fact that "Wit" comes across as one of those "important' plays you're supposed to see and suppose to like, even if you don't. The Pulitzer does that.

The dialogue is sparse, predictable ("I didn't know there could be such pain on this Earth") and sometimes without wit (Doctor to Bearing: "What do you do for exercise?" Bearing: "Pace." There are two scenes that shine in their unadulterated beauty; both involve Light and Lisa Tharps, the actress playing her nurse. The first one (you'll need to watch closely since it takes place in a mere wordless moment) is when Bearing, alone in the world and without friends, finally accepts she is going to die and reaches out to her nurse. Like a child touching a sizzling stove, Bearing pulls back, but not before she has displayed her humanity. The better, wordier and longer of the two involve a third "character" -- an orange popsicle Bearing splits in two, offering a surprised nurse the other half ... a frozen treat that melts the stubborn scab Bearing placed between them.

Light is certainly not lite. She tackles the role wholeheartedly, exhausting herself ands us at the same time, infusing Bearing with intellectual arrogance and scholarly haughtiness. And she know how to deliver -- and deliver well and dryly -- her character's humor. She in unflinching, chilly (but never cold) and mesmerizing to watch as she "learns to suffer," as she accepts the delicate balance between disease and despair, broken spirit and sharp mind, life and death.

It is she who gives "Wit" its life.

"Wit" will be performed Tuesday through Friday at 8 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday at 2 and 7:30 p.m., at Boston's Wilbur Theatre, through February 27. Tickets range in price from $25 to $62.50. For more information or reservations, call (508) 931-2787.

" W;t" (till 27 February)
246 Tremont Street, BOSTON
1(617) 931-2787

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