OGDEN — It’s a show about a University Professor of English dying of ovarian cancer? And the play’s title is Wit. So, of course this play isn’t being billed as “the feel good comedy of the year”. The good news is that playwright Margaret Edson’s script is rich with references to metaphysical poetry and that director Tracy Callahan’s production turned out to be comical, intelligent, deep and touching without being maudlin.
The main character of the play, Vivian Bearing, is an intellectual. She has made the study and mastery of the English language, especially poetry, her life’s sole direction. She is a direct and uncompromising English professor, with no children or spouse at the age of 50. So, how is she feeling today? Great, except for the cancer. Through a series of present-day hospital scenes and flashbacks to her youth and teaching career, the audience learns about her character and the lenses through which she views the world. She is an intellectual of language surrounded by intellectuals of medicine. They treat her illness, and she corrects and scoffs at their misuse of the English language. However, as her illness progresses, she is forced to weigh the values of being treated intellectually or with kindness.
There is an extreme parallel created between the poetic works of John Donne and the present state Vivian finds herself in. John Donne’s poetry poses the deep topics of God, sin, and the soul. But instead of making statements or answering questions, his work primarily initiate the topics and then describes his struggles under those topics traditionally without resolution. Having a prior understanding of the specifics here is not required to understand and enjoy its role in the play.
The stage consists of a large sculpture of a woman’s head resting on her hands (as though she was asleep) and several hanging panels with poetry written on them behind large see-through curtains. In contrast, the props were more utilitarian: modern day medical equipment that could only transport the viewers to a realistic hospital setting. The technical department provided realistic hospital equipment sounds and seamless spotlighting. These creative elements allowed me to fully believe the scenario and not become distracted.
Shawnee K. Johnson as Vivian Bearing was a revelation. She executed considerably well on comic timing and completely sold her character’s affliction. There was an actual moment where her shivering actually made me feel like it was getting cold, although I quickly realized that the temperature in the room had not changed. Simply put, even though I am stingy with awarding standing ovations, Johnson’s performance absolutely qualified for one.
Jason Baldwin as Harvey Kelekian (and Mr. Bearing) was a very convincing, and he must have studied the bedside manner of actual medical professionals exhaustively. His initial interaction with Vivian was packed with medical terminology spoken as though it was his actual profession. Cory Thompson (as Jason Posner, M.D.) is probably the only person I will ever hear say, “Cancer is awesome,” and then sell the idea. Flo Bravo (as Susie Monahan, R.N., B.S.N.) was not only a representative of the common person, but also a wonderful dose of humanity. There was a sincere tenderness as she soothed Vivian’s temperature with a damp towel. Judy Elsley (as E.M. Ashford, D. Phil) was the wise and warm character that helped me understand the depths of punctuation and the value of a deep story told simply. Elsley made her scenes so matronly and touching, especially the last time they spoke and read the rabbit story. The remaining ensemble supported wonderfully without drawing unnecessary focus. With their many transformations they made me feel there was a large group of extras backstage.
Overall, Wit was a wonderful journey into both Vivian’s intellectual and emotional worlds. However, audience members should be aware before attending that Wit contains nudity, explicit language and adult situations.