Someday Productions LLc and Pillow Talking are pleased to present the following review of WIT at Playhouse on Park
Through May 8th
She is the college professor who icily dismisses you from her classroom, having reduced you to a sobbing, sniveling mess. In class she is known for her exacting and uncompromising standards. But who is she, really? What is it that defines her life? Is she something else beyond the university’s perimeter? But what’s more, do you really care? The she in this case is Dr. Vivian Bearing, the protagonist of playwright Margaret Edson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning W;t (or Wit), who despite her scholarly pursuits, now is defined almost entirely by the fact that she has incurable, late-stage ovarian cancer; the treatment options as aggressive as the cancer’s devastating progression.
Death is the ultimate existential threat, forcing those who face it to reflect upon their lives and their accomplishments. There is neither time to do more nor the ability to go back and change was has been done. If one realizes that they haven’t contributed to humanity in any worthwhile way, death and dying are nothing if not a daunting, even frightening final experience.
Erik Erikson, a neo-Freudian psychologist, emphasized the development of the self (or as Freud called it, the “ego”) in the context of social relationships. He also proposed that throughout the entirety of an individual’s years on earth, one continues to grow and develop, moving through life’s many challenges and learning along the way. But the question for each of us is what will be our path and where shall we focus our energies? Will it be the creation of family and the cultivation of relationships? Or will it be our work which fulfills us? Then again, will it be something else completely? Erikson called this generativity – or the desire to make commitments to and create connections with others, and to leave behind valuable contributions to later generations. Without generativity, one experiences stagnation.
For Vivian, her life was all about academia – so much so that she didn’t touch another human soul in any ways that truly mattered to her in her dark end. Should she not have had terminal cancer, she might have had an opportunity to experience this crisis and choose to change her trajectory. But such was not so. In her dying months, weeks, days, and hours she came to realize that she was in fact stagnant in her life; a sobering truth that terrified her. Vivian began to look back upon her life – earlier than Erikson would have suggested, facing her mortality at 50, rather than in “old age.” This existential reflection challenged her personal integrity. Erikson termed this despair; a life misspent.
Playhouse on Park gives us Vivian Bearing (played utterly flawlessly by a frail and bald Elizabeth Lande) who dedicated her life to the intense knowledge and analysis of 17th-Century English poet John Donne. She is a gifted linguist who can turn a phrase like none other. When she is diagnosed with stage IV metastatic ovarian cancer, the veritable academic that she is, she proffers her body to medical academia, to further the field’s understanding of treatment via relentlessly intense chemotherapy. While she willingly does so, she is dismayed to discover she may as well be cells in a petri dish. Even her former student-turned-clinical fellow, Dr. Jason Posner (Tim Hackney), makes no human connection to her; nor does the lead investigator of the research trial, Chief of Medical Oncology Dr. Harvey Kelekian (David Gautschy).
As chemotherapy begins to wear down Vivian, she opens her mind, heart, and soul to consider her life’s experiences, seeing her triumphs and recognizing her foibles. The story is told through Vivian’s reality, often clouded by drugs, pain, and other side effects. Regularly breaking the fourth wall and through flashbacks, Vivian recalls her childhood and her stern father; her graduate school mentor, Professor Emerita of English Literature, E.M. Ashford (Waltrudis Buck); her work in the classroom; and the day of her diagnosis. As she is weakened by both the effects of the eight-month-long treatment as well as her failing body, her humanity and vulnerability are exposed. Throughout it all, there is but one person who shows Vivian true compassion, her nurse, Susie Monahan (Chuja Seo).
The play is staged simply, with moveable pieces, including such things as an IV stand, a hospital bed, and office and classroom furniture, allowing for the focus to be wholly on the words and action of the story. The acting by the entire troupe is spot-on. Lande masters Edson’s incredible use of language, although at times it becomes a bit difficult to follow. This is not entirely a criticism, but there are moments where I had to think harder than I did when I was in graduate school. Lande is Vivian in a way only the best actors are able to meld with their characters. I laughed when she laughed and I cried along with her – she was so incredibly moving, that when the play ended, the silence in the house was deafening.
Hackney is brilliant as Dr. Posner, mirroring Vivian’s own academic tenacity and stark harshness, devoid of human connection. Gautschy as Dr. Kelekian is the straightforward doctor – the one with no bedside manner, bringing to mind the many doctors with whom I’ve had similar experiences. His moments also as Vivian’s father are quite memorable. Seo as Nurse Monahan compellingly brings the few, but needed tender moments to the play and to Vivian’s life. Buck is wonderful as Professor Ashford, the woman with the same scholarly pursuits but perhaps, more humanness than her protégé. Sarah Detrik, Julia Edwall, and Harrison Greene round out the cast as medical interns/students and each add wonderful dimension to the story.
Stevie Zimmerman ably directed this cast in a moving and heart-wrenching, but challenging piece. Shout outs also must go to Joel Abbott for sound design, Emily Nichols for scenic design, Marcus Abbott for lighting, Kate Bunce for costumes, and Pamela Lang as properties master.
W;t forces you to think – to think about how you live your life, to consider what in life is truly important, and to decide what it is that may matter most in the end. Playhouse Theatre Group should be tremendously proud of the work they have produced. My only regret was not having read the SparkNotes for Donne’s poetry before going, so here’s a heads up to you to consider it before you go!
Samuel Johnson, the 17th century poet and critic, coined the term “metaphysical poets” to include a group of his contemporaries, including John Donne, who used “wit” in their poetry. According to Johnson, wit was a conceit in which a kind of discordia concors; a combination of dissimilar images or discovery of occult resemblances in things apparently unlike.
In simpler terms (and even for myself, an English Literature major who studied Donne) the metaphysical poets like John Donne wrote poetry about subjects such as religion, marked by bold imagery and forced comparison between dissimilar things.
Turning to the play, a metaphor which can be used regarding the title — or is it a simile? or maybe it’s just a plain old comparison? (if I could only recall my 17th century poetry seminar in college), Wit can also be titled Wow and should have the following disclosure: This play is intense and contains realistic acting about real themes and real issues. Faint hearted or those abused by the medical system beware.
Playhouse on Park’s production, brilliantly directed by Stevie Zimmerman, is breathtaking and, at the same time, gut wrenching. It follows and documents the final days of Vivian Bearing, PhD, a 17th century Donne scholar who has advanced ovarian cancer. Dr. Bearing has secluded herself intellectually, foregoing human relationships and contact, living in an ivory tower built on language, metaphors, and conceits. As life (and death) intrude on her world, sending her ivory tower crashing to the ground, Vivian finally is able to see the stone cold reality of existence and the need for human contact and interaction.
The play, written by Margaret Edson (hard to believe that Ms. Edson who wrote such a dark, serious piece, was the playmate of the hysterically funny Julia Louis-Dreyfus of Seinfeld fame) is a modern sojourn into existential metaphysics. When I was a young culture vulture in college, virtually mistake-free, unblemished by the throes of life, it was easy be an existentialist. Cloistered in hallowed, dusty library carrels (when you still had to use punch cards in Fortran and SPSS computer programs), it was easy to gluttonize oneself with Kierkegaard, Sartre, and Camus, or Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich and the stick-like figures of the sculptor Giacometti. “Life sucks and then you die” was an easy mantra to promulgate. But then, as John Lennon said, “[l]ife is what happens when you’re making other plans.” Aging parents stricken by cancer, career stress, money (or lack thereof), children, and wrestling with one’s own mortality among other things. Life happens, agnostic (even atheistic) and existentialist philosophies fall by the wayside as we grapple with the meaning of life and our own existence – two questions central to the play’s core.
Veteran actress and graduate of the Yale School of Drama (no surprise there) is simply INCREDIBLE as the dying Vivian Bearing. Frail, bald, consumptive; if I met her on the street I’d swear she was stricken with a type of cancer. Her performance was bone-chilling at times, yet at all times inspiring. David Gautschy was perfect as the somewhat smarmy, pompous oncologist Dr. Harvey Kelekian. He has the sans-bedside manner down to a science (I had met many Dr. Kelekians in my own past when both my parents were struggling with cancer). Tim Hackney also was spot-on as the sometimes droll but always vapid Dr. Jason Posner whose only concern was keeping Vivian alive for his research purposes. (Both Kelekian and Posner need to watch The Doctor with William Hurt to learn empathy and compassion for their charges.) And speaking of compassion, the only traces that Vivian sees are those embodied in the characters of Nurse Susie Monahan and Vivian’s Professor E.M. Ashford, convincingly and wonderfully portrayed by, respectively, Chuja Seo and the experienced actress Waltrudis Buck.
If there were any flaws, it is of the structure of the play itself and certainly not Playhouse on Park’s production. Indeed, the play, which won a 1999 Pulitzer, was written at a time when the people’s attention spans were longer and not diluted by the present-day barrage of three-second cuts and six-second Vine videos. It can benefit from judicious pruning for sure. While there is some comic relief, it is sparse and thinly sprinkled. Finally, the play is heavily laden in metaphors, conceits, allusion, and sometimes obscure references. While you don’t have to be a linguistic scholar (or a Donne fan), Cliff notes would certainly help (yes, I really was an English major and I loved Milton, but the Cliff notes were a godsend — my bad).
Life, death. Two extremes separated by a mere comma. (Call me a metaphysical poet.) The play will ultimately have some kind of effect on you – it’s that powerful and ultimately that is the goal of great theatre. It’s interesting that one of the most famous poems of John Donne is not mentioned, yet its theme and intent capture the essence of the play (maybe that was deliberate on the part of Ms. Edson).
No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend’s
Or of thine own were:
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.*
So go see Wit and then go home and hug your family and loved ones. Life turns on a dime.
* This was not originally a poem, but prose by Donne from the 1624 Meditation 17, from Devotions upon Emergent Occasions. Forever the English major.