Salt Lake City – My first exposure to Margaret Edson‘s play, Wit, was at a one-act play festival in high school. It contrasted so drastically with everything else there that I immediately fell in love with it. I have watched scenes from it, used sections of it in my theatre education, watched the film version,and read it countless times. Thursday night I had the opportunity to see it in its entirety on stage for the first time. Wasatch Theatre’s production of Wit, directed by Vicki Pugmire, was everything I hoped for and more.
Wit is about Dr. Vivian Bearing, a professor of the 16th century poet John Donne, and her battle with stage four ovarian cancer. The script is composed of her final two hours, intermingled with flashbacks from her life. Vivian narrates her own story by speaking directly to the audience, breaking the fourth wall. It is a play of intelligence, sprinkled with humor and sarcasm, and surrounded by serious themes of life, death, and humanity.
The very first moment of the show the audience is directly spoken to by Vivian Bearing, played by Teresa Sanderson. This conversation, about the question, “How are feeling today?” instantly draws you in. Sanderson brings life, vivacity, and irony to the role of Vivian Bearing. This opening conversation is the start of a little inside joke between Vivian and the audience. Vivian loves words and the role of Vivian is filled with a large vocabulary that could become overwhelming.
The danger of this particular role is not becoming lost in the language and loosing the personality, but that was not the case in this production. Sanderson’s Vivian was full of spunk, personality, and determination. She discovered and brought out the irony in her situation from the very start. She made me laugh, she made me cry, and she even made me start in my seat with the ferocity of her stubbornness during a refusal of the doctors’ wishes. What I loved most was that I felt like I was her confidante as she directly addressed the audience.
Sanderson opened up my eyes to see Vivian as I had never seen her before. She brought out emotions that I didn’t recognize were there in my own study of the script. Sanderson also showed her abilities to perform a wide swath of ages while still remaining true to her character. There are scenes from Vivian’s childhood, her days as a college student, her teaching career, and medical journey. My favorite flashback is from Vivian’s childhood where she first falls in love with words. She is lying on the floor reading a children’s book while her father (played by Darryl Stamp) sits in an arm chair reading the newspaper. The entire scene is played out by the adult Vivian clad in hospital gowns (costume design by Linda Eyring), and even though my eyes saw an adult, my mind saw and heard a young child.
I also enjoyed watching the others characters interact with Vivian. The two characters I’d like to discuss are Susie (played by Haley McCormick) and Jason (played by Nicholas Dunn). Susie is Vivian’s main nurse. McCormick brought a warm and compassionate caregiver to the stage. Susie may not be the smartest person, but she is certainly one of the most caring. She stands up for Vivian’s needs and comfort more than anyone else. McCormick did not allow Susie to be a pushover even though she was a sweetheart. Susie’s ethical code remained strong, even in the face of her superiors when needed. Jason cares more about research than about people, and is constantly forgetting his bedside manners. Dunn did an excellent portrayal of Jason as abrupt and a little rude. However, he also brought out Jason’s enthusiasm for a challenge and for learning more. Near the end of show there was an exchange between Susie and Jason that made me realize Jason does have redeeming qualities and compassion. I appreciated that Dunn brought out those qualities in small moments.
The venue for this production, a studio theatre at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center, was a perfect fit. Because the story and interactions are so intimate, a small audience and close quarters was very appropriate for this production. The set (designed and constructed by Kit Anderton) was composed of two walls, each with a doorway inset into them, painted to look like a sterile hospital room. A hospital privacy curtain hung off a beam from the grid system above. A hospital bed, along with some basic hospital equipment, were the only set furnishings. Additional furniture and props (designed by Ann Davis) for vignettes flowed off and on the stage, moved by cast members. All of the furniture and prop transitions were done in plain view.
One of my favorite aspects of this show is how the set was able to stay simple and flexible due to the use of lights (design by Danny Dunn) and sounds (design by Troy Klee). One example was the use of lights and sounds to imitate medical procedures such as x-rays. Vivian stood center stage, the lights darkened and then flashed, accompanied by the sound of an x-ray so that no x-ray equipment was needed. Another favorite moment occurred as the action increased and the scene gradually became more isolated from the audience, despite a closeness I had felt to the production all night. After the show ended I didn’t want to applaud and break the spell. As the audience left, I remained in my seat and allowed myself to soak in the experience. As I sat there, I listened to the music playing and watched as the hospital curtain slowly rippled on the empty stage. The lights, the sound, and the performance I experienced was heart changing.
Wasatch Theatre’s production lasts approximately 100 minutes with no intermission; an intermission would take away from the overall experience. It is a wonderful, heart touching evening for a mature audience. Wit contains strong language and adult themes, including nudity. To me a good production is one I can walk away from wanting to be better person and that is exactly how I felt after this show. So grab a friend, some tissues, and don’t just see a show, go see the Wasatch Theatre Company’s production of Wit and have a beautiful experience.