May 2016 | Volume 143
Photo by Damon Calderwood. Pictured L-R: Ron Reed, Baraka Rahmani, Jess Amy Shead, Katharine Venour, Brandon Bate, Dan Amos, Julia Siedlanowska.
Margaret Edson’s Wit was an unexpected hit in New York in the late 1990s with extended runs off and on Broadway and a Pulitzer Prize, all for a play about the last hours of a woman suffering from stage four ovarian cancer and the brutal experimental chemotherapy her doctors have prescribed for her. This is not the cheeriest subject, but Edson treats it with intelligence and, yes, sometimes wit, and provides a plum role for a middle-aged actress.
After its Pulitzer the play made the rounds of the regionals, including Vancouver’s late lamented Playhouse where it starred Seana McKenna as Dr. Vivian Bearing, the dying literature professor and John Donne scholar. Now it gets a welcome revival in the cozy confines of Pacific Theatre’s church basement where Katharine Venour does a very fine job as the woman who believes that intellect can conquer all, but finds out otherwise.
At 50 and alone, Vivian is a tough teacher and rigorous scholar, specializing in the 17th century poet known for the intellectual rigour and paradoxical “wit” of his sonnets. Her academic focus is Donne’s Holy Sonnets, theologically complex poems like “Death Be Not Proud,” the final couplet of which confronts death with Christian confidence:
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.
Vivian learned from her mentor, Professor Ashford (Erla Faye Forsythe), the importance of even the slightest distinctions of punctuation in Donne’s poetic lines: “It’s not wit, it’s truth … death separated from life by a mere breath, a comma.” Vivian repeats this couplet multiple times in various forms. She feels she has control of her life and the death she is facing via the same tools of the mind with which Donne constructed his work. Unlike Donne, however, God never seems to enter into her equation.
But she’s tough (her name, after all, is Bearing: she can take it). So her doctors (Ron Reed and Dan Amos) propose an experimental treatment involving a fearsome regimen of chemo, carried out by a hospital staff as clinically aloof and professionally unsympathetic as the doctors, all except caring nurse Susie (Julie Casselman). As Vivian undergoes the indignities of the hospitalization, her awful treatment and her painful, deteriorating body, she provides a running commentary for the audience on the experience.
It’s darkly funny when the horrors of the chemo lead her to consider the notion of literally “barfing my brains out.” It’s brainy when she considers the paradox that the treatment for her cancer is making her sick: “Donne would revel in it. I would revel in it.” But as she nears death, terrified and screaming in pain, she realizes that wit and paradox are no longer relevant. “Being very smart no longer works.”
In contrast to the smart, unfeeling doctors and her own impotent smarts, what does work in the end—for the audience at least—is the direct human sympathy of sweet nurse Susie and tough old Professor Ashford, who crawls into Vivian’s bed and reads her a children’s book.
Venour maintains Vivian’s intellectual curiosity without ever falling into stage-academic clichés, and she’s horrifyingly convincing in rendering Vivian’s excruciating pain near the end. The supporting cast is also very good across the board, especially Casselman as Susie and Amos as the awful Dr. Posner.
Director Angela Konrad keeps everything low-key, which should work nicely in the intimate Pacific Theatre space. But paradoxically (Donne would like that), I remember the energy of the Playhouse production—actors having to project, somewhat rhetorically, to a big house—animating this intimate play, whereas the quiet, conversational nature of Konrad’s production hit some real lulls in places.
Wit is a play that respects great literature and confronts big questions with intellectual honesty. How are we equipped to deal with our own death? Not very well, it seems. No pat answers here. And paradoxically, there’s some comfort in that.
get in touch with vancouverplays:
Vancouver's arts and culture website providing theatre news, previews and reviews