A Scholar Undonne by Death

Review of Wit at Playhouse on Park

Mortality figures as a theme in many plays, but Margaret Edson’s Wit, now playing at Playhouse on Park directed by Stevie Zimmerman, dwells on the approach of death from first to last. Dr. Vivian Bearing (Elizabeth Lande), the main character, greets the audience brightly with the inevitable query of medical care-givers, “how are you feeling today?” She is in a hospital gown with a portable IV, bald head beneath a knit cap, when she asks. However we might be feeling, it has to be better than she is.

The story of the play is well-known: Vivian, a formidable English professor specializing in 17th century poetry, particularly the Metaphysical Poets and especially John Donne and, predominantly, the Holy Sonnets, is stricken with Stage IV metastatic ovarian cancer at the age of 50. She agrees to the most vigorous treatment available, which requires bombardment with chemo, so that, while improving in some ways—her huge tumor does get smaller—she is on a downward slope that will, at best, be arrested for a time. What she is, in fact, is a test subject to determine the side effects and progress of the treatment.

 Elizabeth Lande as Dr. Vivian Bearing (photo: Rich Wagner)

Elizabeth Lande as Dr. Vivian Bearing (photo: Rich Wagner)

Key to the play, which is Edson’s only play and a Pulitzer-winning play at that, is the parallel between the rigor of the medical treatment Vivian receives from Drs. Kelekian (David Gautschy) and Posner (Tim Hackney) and the rigor of her training at the hands of the august eminence Professor E. M. Ashford (Waltrudis Buck), and the rigor of her own teaching for decades. For Bearing and her mentor, the English language has never been used to more complex and concentrated effect than in Donne’s Holy Sonnets, which explore faith in the face of mortality. An early flashback shows us Vivian, an undergraduate acolyte, taking in Professor Ashford’s lesson that punctuation matters in how one reads poetry as dense as Donne’s—specifically the “Death be not proud” Sonnet. Eventually, Professor Bearing gets around to expounding a bit of the poetry, the audience helped by overheads, but Lande is better at playing wry and puckish test subject than she is at donnish academic. Sonnet IX, with its theme of the mercy of forgetfulness, seems apropos to Bearing’s late misgivings about her solitary life and ended career, but the force of the conviction, if present, feels a bit scattered.

 Professor Bearing (Elizabeth Lande) with a Donne sonnet (photo: Meredith Atkinson)

Professor Bearing (Elizabeth Lande) with a Donne sonnet (photo: Meredith Atkinson)

Better is a scene of Bearing in the classroom where her lack of empathy for her hapless students is paralleled by her research-based doctors’ lack of empathy with her suffering. The point comes off because Bearing’s students, like her doctors, don’t seem to believe that the mind has its own rewards. Certainly, the comparison being pushed is that Bearing has been an overbearing teacher much as her doctors are overbearing researchers—especially Posner, who, neatly enough, was Bearing’s student when an undergrad. Still, one wishes that the very notion of metaphysical thought would clash at some point with the extreme physicality of modern medicine’s point of view; for the students, Donne “hides” behind difficulty, and the obvious parallels are the cancer cells that hide within the seemingly healthy body, until too late; or the need for human contact that Vivian hides until almost too late. Getting it all out in the open is what, schooled by illness, Vivian eventually does.

 the cast of Wit (photo: Meredith Atkinson)

the cast of Wit (photo: Meredith Atkinson)

The irony that her former student, played with detached concentration by Tim Hackney, should be putting his former prof through an ever stricter barrage of tests is not lost on Bearing, but neither is it dwelt upon, any more than she would be apt to point out that her love of paradox finds its echo in being treated by a pair o’ docs. But, for the audience, the possibility of life—and, more importantly death—imitating rhetoric is some of the fun. As with the play’s willingness to both define and enact the “soporific” (high-toned English poetry and medical terminology both can qualify), the quality of Prof. Bearing’s mind is the main entertainment here. Lande is a figure of compassion almost from the start, with her childlike appearance, but the role would benefit from some less likable disdain.

Eventually, the play, which seems to be keeping death at bay much as Bearing keeps fellow feeling at bay, succumbs to both. Vivian risks becoming “maudlin” in her own estimation for the sake of companionship with her nurse Susie Monahan, played with winning efficiency by Chuja Seo. And Susie is important because through her we arrive at the main plot point once death has been admitted. Susie cautions Vivian, in a touching scene with shared frozen popsicles, that she might want a “Do Not Resuscitate” order and that brings about a moment of medical drama. The scene struck me with a force that worked against its manifest meaning—a paradox of which, whatever death might be, both Donne and Vivian might be proud.

Staging, lighting, sound—the technical requirements of mounting this spare but shifting play—are all handled brilliantly, so much so that one barely pauses to think about how it’s done. And that takes some wit indeed.

 

Wit
By Margaret Edson
Directed by Stevie Zimmerman

Scenic Designer: Emily Nichols; Costume Designer: Kate Bunce; Sound Designer: Joel Abbott; Lighting Designer: Marcus Abbott; Properies Master: Pamela Lang

Playhouse on Park
April 20-May 8, 2016