Margaret Edson’s “WIT” at Playhouse on Park – through May 8
“WIT” is a severe play about an unyielding Professor of English Literature who is having to yield to an aggressive Cervical Cancer. Her own intense educational path involved a detailed study of the correct punctuation of the final couplet in John Donne’s Holy Sonnet Number 10: Should there be a semi-colon or just a genteel comma, after ‘death?’ Now she is getting to the root of the question in a big way. Something of a final exam.
The production at the Playhouse is simply excellent in every way. Stevie Zimmerman’s direction is precise and powerful, and Elizabeth Lande’s portrayal of Dr. Vivian Bearing is magnificent. It’s a tough role. We meet her first as she learns of her stage 4 cancer, from a brusque and efficient Dr. Harvey Kelekian (David Gautschy), with a sympathetic co-factor of zero: ‘you must be tough!... and you must continue all eight sequences of this powerful drug at full strength so that we can reap research data from your treatment.’ Something like that, minus eye contact and warmth. So Vivian -- leaning into asides to the audience throughout the play -- comments on the irony of the distance between her circumstance and the way one imagines caring might take place: The over-use of “how are you feeling today” and the absurdity of constantly responding “Fine” in different tones and accents. The clinical aloofness of doctors and interns, one of whom, it turns out is Jason (Tim Hackney) who remembers being a student in her class on Metaphysical Poetry. Jason is not only clinical and distant, but he seems especially nervous about the possibility of any humanizing contact with Vivian, even though he checks out her insides to measure the tumor. In his chit-chat with Nurse Susie Monahan (a superb Chuja Seo) he compliments Vivian’s solid teaching and also wonders where Susie learned how to be so gentle and available to her patients.
In a flashback we meet Vivian’s Professor E. M. Ashford (Waltrudis Buck) who is a stickler for understanding the delicate punctuation of Donne’s poetry. The scene design (Emily Nichols) handsomely allows for projections of the Sonnet so that two versions can be compared. In one, with a semi-colon and an exclamation point, Professor Ashford points out the gross hard-lining and exaggeration of Death. The other, which she prefers and believes authentic, is gentler and natural, using only a comma to mark the transition from sleep to Death, and beyond. “One short sleep past, we wake eternally, and Death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.”
As the play progresses, with round after round of invasive chemotherapy, the curious meditation on Donne’s words becomes more relevant, and Susie’s gentle ministering to Vivian is the only calming action. Finally, it becomes clear that death will be the outcome. As Vivian writhes in pain, her doctor allows a morphine drip and as she sleeps, there is a surprise visit from Professor Ashford, who climbs aboard her bed and holds Vivian, while she reads her a story of a little bunny whose mother does not let him go outside the sphere of her love. It is particularly touching to experience this scene, which ties together Ashford’s understanding of Donne and its meaning for Vivian’s transition -- no heavy drama, just a comma.
As Vivian dies, there is an attempt at drama in the hospital as staff runs to respond to a senseless call for resuscitation, to underscore the point. It is Jason who mistakenly makes the call, becoming human, in his way, at last. It is Susie who cuts it short, because she has been close enough to Vivian to know her wish to die unaided and uninterrupted by extreme measures. And while the medical staff surround the bed clucking and tugging at instruments, Vivian again slips aside to the audience, crossing the comma to the other side.
“WIT” is a profound and lovely statement of how it is possible to die with dignity, even in an undignified environment. Lighting, sets, costumes, sound design, all very good. Take the opportunity to see this excellent production.
Tickets and information at www.playhouseonpark.org, or 860-523-5900.