Cancer is the great equalizer. You can be smart, dim-witted, a marshmallow or a field marshal—its ruthless, endlessly propagating cells ravage everyone the same.
This is a tough lesson for Professor Vivian Bearing (Rena Cherry Brown), an esteemed scholar of John Donne’s metaphysical poetry of the 17th century, to swallow. She thought intelligence and rigor of mind would give her the upper hand in fighting the disease over those of less mental acuity. By approaching her cancer as if it were a delectably puzzling stanza from a poem, she diagrams her journey in Wit from uncompromising professor and staunch defender of proper grammar and punctuation to an isolated and sick patient, thirsty for a drop of human kindness.
Margaret Edson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, fluidly directed by Richard Pilcher, is a dying professor’s “The Last Lecture” of a less obviously inspiring and exuberant nature than Randy Pausch’s. Vivian’s methodology for her cancer and treatment combines withering wit and detachment and she expects her students—here, the audience—to do the same. As she wryly notes at the beginning of Wit, she knows she is in a play and she thinks she dies at the end.
The play starts with her diagnosis, discussing her Stage-IV ovarian cancer professional-to-professional with researcher Dr. Harvey Kelekian (James Laster)—interrupting his perfunctory explanations to question his usage of the word “insidious” and other points of etymology. Vivian, as described by caring nurse Susie Monahan (the excellent Mundy Spears) as “no cupcake,” cuts a daunting figure even when bald from chemo and wearing a baseball cap and two formless hospital gowns.
In sickness, she behaves much as she did in the lecture hall, enunciating impeccably and not suffering fools gladly, especially those not as erudite as she is. Much of the humor in the play evolves from the grammatical and intellectual gaffes she is forced to endure in the hospital and from her undergrads. Words are her weapons, punctuation her rallying cry, language and learning the fortresses she builds around herself.
Yet, formidable intellect just does so much when up against eight full-bore rounds of experimental chemotherapy and the experience of a research hospital where Dr. Kelekian and his oncology fellow, the brisk Dr. Jason Posner (Matt Bassett), greatly prefer data and cell cultures to the messiness of interacting with patients. In one telling moment, Jason describes the beauty and perfection of the cancer cells in the same rapture mixed with envy way that Vivian must have lectured on the poetry of Donne—not realizing, or perhaps not even caring, that these are the same cells that are killing Vivian.
She comments bemusedly on having gone from a great scholar to nobody being wheeled from test to test, endlessly spelling her last name to anonymous technicians who buzz in and out of the hospital room in the production’s deft staging. Vivian watches her life dripping away as slowly and precisely as the fluids in her IV bags and at first seems droll about her encroaching neediness for a bit of attention and a kind word, both of which are graciously dispensed by Susie. Miss Spears brings warmth and ease to the role of Susie, managing to convey both professionalism and a well-spring of compassion.
Miss Brown’s Vivian drips with condescension and intellectual lah-di-dah—not the warmest of company. Yet, she is a riveting creature, formidable and exacting. Miss Brown’s performance is much like Vivian’s mind—sharp, not much waste or foolishness in it.
The experience of this production is similar to being in one of Vivian Bearing’s classes—demanding and tough. Having seen both the Broadway and touring productions of Wit, there was something to Kathleen Chalfont and Judith Light’s portrayals, an inner incandescence that made the play more meaningful. They also used the instruments of their voices so skillfully that you could imagine their Vivians viewing the world as their lecterns and delivering lectures in those plummy tones.
Miss Brown’s is hard and resolute, so much so you don’t believe she learned much about herself during the ordeal or died at peace with who she was—she just slipped away anesthetized with pain killers. The scene that should rip you to shreds, where you see a woman whose life was devoted to confounding complexities taking comfort in the uncluttered prose of the children’s book “The Runaway Bunny,” instead finds you intellectually noting its emotional potential, but not feeling it.
With Miss Light particularly, you truly felt that the pain and misery of the cancer whittled her down to her core, to her purest self and she died seeing herself as a whole person—the sum total of her struggles and fears and not solely as a great mind.
Wit, for me, is not about the ravages of cancer or heroism, but coming to a hard-earned state of grace after what you think is your only thing you have to offer—in Vivian’s case, her intellect—fails you in your biggest battle. Facing death, Vivian realizes that she is all too human and that there is no shame in it. In fact, that’s where all the beauty lies.
by Margaret Edson
Directed by Richard Pilcher
Produced by Bay Theatre Company
Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard
Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes with no intermission