Wit for Life
It's not every day that a play about death resuscitates the English language. The word wit as a noun has all but vanished from the English language only to be replaced by the shallower derivative, the adjective witty -- a witty joke, a witty game show host, a witty comment at a cocktail party. Wit has not always meant humor. At one time the word encompassed both ingenuity and judgment. Aristotle distinguished wit as the inventive or imaginative faculty and in particular the ability to see similarity in disparities. Wit, then, is at the heart of paradox, the unfathomable union of radical contradictions.
It is this complex understanding of language that distinguishes Margaret Edson's Pulitzer Prize-winning play Wit, the story of Dr. Vivian Bearing (Barbara Sloan), a distinguished professor of 17th-century literature whose well-ordered world is shattered when she discovers that she is in the last stages of advanced metastatic ovarian cancer. New Theatre's new, fully renovated, and significantly larger space on Laguna Street in Coral Gables is as welcoming as it is intimate, and artistic director Rafael de Acha has christened the theater's new home with a wonderful piece of drama.
The harsh contradictions that form this play's foundation transform it from a heart-wrenching drama to a mind-bending philosophical journey. The audience is propelled further and further into a world of contradictions crueler by turns. As a literary scholar specializing in the holy sonnets of metaphysical poet John Donne, Bearing has spent her life cloaked in the world of language and scholarship only to find herself stripped down to a thin hospital gown and a bright red baseball cap that covers her bald head. Bearing has agreed to eight months of aggressive and experimental treatment headed by two researchers: doctors Harvey Kelekian (Wayne E. Robinson Jr.) and Jason Posner (Paul Wong), who also is a former student of Bearing's. As Western medicine meets poetry, the audience becomes increasingly aware that Bearing's life has more value at the molecular level than the human one, as she sardonically declares, "What we've come to think of as me has become just a specimen jar." Once a distinguished scholar, she is now valued for her intake of fluids and output of feces. In one disturbing scene, de Acha illustrates this reduced state by having Sloan get out of bed and walk around while the medical staff huddles around her bed examining, poking, prodding, and hypothesizing. This visual display is a haunting reminder of modern medicine's objectification of her body and her dissociation from it.
Wit is essentially a one-woman show, an interchange between a dying woman and the audience. The intellectually dense and dramatic material demands nothing less than a virtuoso performance, and Sloan delivers this consistently throughout the play's nonstop, 90-minute running time. This role gives Sloan, a regular face in the South Florida theater scene, the opportunity to pull out all the stops, revealing an intensity and stamina that her roles in previous New Theatre productions such as Far East and The Book of Ruth didn't allow.
Wit's dramatic structure unfolds around a series of flashbacks, which Bearing narrates, speaking directly to the audience. In these episodes we review her life. As a student she chose the library stacks over companionship, and as a professor she was exigent and unsympathetic toward her students. Sometimes she refers to a crucial moment in her past: "Now through a series of flashbacks, you will see how the professor denied her students what she now seeks." The danger in these flashbacks is that they could easily become sentimental retreats, but de Acha presents them evenly without turning them into moralistic digressions.
Besides giving dimension to Bearing's character, Wit's shifting dramatic perspective is an excellent vehicle for the play's rich use of humor and irony. "I used to be the one who did all the talking. Now I'm the poem. It's much easier; I just sit here and look cancerous," Bearing explains to the audience. The role of being both narrator and protagonist creates a surprising amount of humor in a text that is fundamentally serious, exemplified in Bearing's penchant for pontificating even when she is bedridden and being rolled around. It's as if her voice is engaged in a dialogue with the audience whereas her body is undergoing cancer treatment.
One of the most notable aspects of Sloan's performance is her use of voice. She paces herself, showing more restraint than drama in her delivery. A skillful soliloquist, she works brilliantly with spaces of silence, transforming them into labyrinths and, yes, torture chambers where we as an audience are forced to hang on her every word. Sometimes her voice fills the entire stage and becomes a more potent tool than the image of her failing body.
Playwright Edson's acumen and organic use of Donne's poetry is impressive from beginning to end, and de Acha directs Wit from the point of view of someone who appreciates exquisite language. He carefully tempers the level of the protagonist's intensity, letting the clever language and Sloan's own ingenuity sink in. It is as much a play about the life of the mind as it is a play about death, and this is the best way to get the most out of a primarily conceptual text that grapples with abstract questions.
Although the stage time of the supporting cast is brief, it is essential to the play's success. Bearing's interactions with other human beings represent her relationship to the world and in a smaller way, to us. Both Wong as the younger researcher and Tara Vodihn Reid as Bearing's primary nurse seem stiff at the beginning and somewhat unsteady in their roles. This is perhaps most noticeable because Sloan's stage presence is so powerful. Wong looks the part of a young perfectionist medical researcher, but his delivery sometimes sounds rehearsed. Likewise Reid is uncharacteristically inconsistent in her portrayal of nurse Monahan. At times she seems sure in her role as the down-to-earth and deeply compassionate nurse who is oblivious to philosophical quandaries. At other times her delivery feels hollow. The scene in which she is supposed to share a Popsicle with Bearing is one of this production's biggest missed opportunities.
On the other hand, the more seasoned players hold their own and help create a compelling portrait of Bearing's past. Dr. Kelekian, the chief researcher, is as cold toward humans as he is passionate about human cells. Later the doctor turns his back to the audience, puts on a cardigan sweater, holds up a newspaper, and becomes Bearing's intellectually demanding and detached father.
Yolandi Hughes deserves credit for bringing one of the play's most poignant moments to the surface as Dr. E.M. Ashford, Bearing's mentor and only visitor. In Bearing's final moments, Ashford enters quietly and reads to her from a children's book. While the dramatic makeover to illustrate Ashford's old age seems overdone and unnecessary, it is again de Acha's decision to underplay a potentially dramatic scene that makes it so moving.
Even a brilliantly written play such as Wit apparently cannot escape the Hollywood happy-ending formula, so it is not surprising that the play doesn't end with the simple image of Bearing's motionless body. Having seen Judith Light practically do an arabesque into a glaring spotlight in last year's production of Wit at the Parker Playhouse, I can safely say that de Acha does a good job of not overdoing what is already overdone. Still, the combination of music, lights, and Sloan's final gesture create a religiosity that seems anticlimactic. As much as we may want to make it so, Wit is not a play about God but a fundamentally secular piece of fiction (hence its mass appeal from off-Broadway to HBO). For me the play ends in those final moments of silence that transform the audience members into mourners. At that point we experience the center of Wit's paradox: the inevitable void of death carved from the undeniable presence of life.
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