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Margaret Edson's 1999 Pultizer Prize-winning play Wit, which deals in one act with the treatment and death of a woman from advanced ovarian cancer, is a rich and nuanced work, and remarkably unsentimental. North Carolina Theatre is making a brave effort with this difficult play, but the production lacks the power inherent in the script.
Part of the issue may be that the lead had to withdraw shortly before opening night. By the night of May 1, her replacement, Kate Goehring (who has performed the role elsewhere), had had only three days to meld with this production. Her vocalization was often weak and over-rapid, but much of the show's flatness must be attributed to directorial choices by Kate Galvin and her inattention to the finer grain of reference and meaning in the play.
Vivian Bearing, Ph.D, is a scholar and professor at the pinnacle of her field, her specialty being the Holy Sonnets of 17th century English poet and theologian John Donne. She's a thorny, demanding, uncompromising personality, and despite Donne's declaration that "no man is an island," Bearing is very much alone. Her passionate love is reserved for Donne's work. Goehring gives her Vivian Bearing the thorny aspect, including some of the sharp humor, or wit; but she does not incandesce when she speaks of Donne. Worse, when she recites from the poems, she does not seem to comprehend them or even to hear their music, and she therefore fails to seduce us with them. She is not believable as a great scholar and academic in passionate pursuit of ever more knowledge and understanding.
So it falls to the audience to do the hard work of caring about a dying woman who's not particularly likeable or interesting. It does not matter, I kept saying to myself, it could be anyone, it is not necessary to like the person: "Any man's death diminishes me."
Yet in art, we must be allowed an entry into the coded ideas and snarls of meaning between the lines and the plot points, and the actor has an obligation to be that entryway, to engage us not only in the story and its easier emotions but also in all that lies under. In a play, it does matter whether it is this person or that person; particularity is essential to expressing commonality.
Generally, the main male parts, the two research doctors – Dr. Harvey Kelekian (Dirk Lumbard) and his research fellow, Dr. Jason Posner (Logan James Hall) – are overplayed. Can there be any innocent body in the theatre audience who doesn't know that research doctors, almost without exception, suffer from underdeveloped or atrophied skill at basic human interaction? It seemed unnecessary to beat that horse to such an extent. However, Hall, as the empathy-free Dr. Posner, did for his character the very thing that Goehring failed to do for her Dr. Bearing: He revealed the passion and wonder that drive him to understand cancer. He's a jerk, but he became an understandable, forgivable jerk – and we can see him as precisely analogous to Bearing. The scene where he does this is the counterbalance to an earlier scene between Bearing and Kelekian, when she hears her diagnosis. Unfortunately, the director chose to overlap their voices as he tells, and her mind attempts to deflect, then accept, the information. There were other possibilities there – the two voices could have been intercut; the doctor could have spoken softly – but as it was, neither side was fully audible, and almost lost in the mishmash was the crucial shift in Kelekian's attitude toward Bearing.* He begins by calling her "Miss," transitions to "Professor," and finally to "Doctor Bearing." The playwright hereby declares the equality of the humanities and the sciences, down to the strengths and weaknesses of their most zealous, perfectionist researchers. It is a larger point, more than just a comparison of the blindered similarity between Bearing and Posner.
The two supporting female roles were very well played (and naturally one wanted to know much more about these characters). Jo Ann Cunningham as E.M. Ashford, Bearing's professor and mentor – and her only visitor in the hospital – was warm and perceptive, as kind as she was demanding. (This production glosses over the sad irony of the isolated Bearing's unused ovaries turning on her, but does point up Prof. Ashford as an example of the scholar whose interests in humanism include procreation.)
But it was Daisy Eagan as Nurse Susie Monahan who lit up the stage. By the end, I, like Vivian Bearing, was longing for Susie to come in and comfort me. Competent and kind, she is Bearing's only ally, holding her when she loses the battle not to be afraid of the dying. She's also the parallel to one of Bearing's students, who questions why Donne makes everything so complicated and hard to understand. Susie doesn't know the meaning of "soporific," but she knows that the morphine will surely put her patient to sleep.
It's Nurse Susie who must have the talk with Dr. Bearing about what to do if (when) her heart stops. This occurs very late in the process, and it is the only thing that really dates this play. There is no way any patient today, in a research program or not, would get to death's doorstep without having requested full intervention – or having signed a "Do Not Resuscitate" order. In the awful culminating scene, Eagan's Susie roars around like a mother tiger, protecting Bearing's body from the "code blue" team with their electroshock equipment. She's a one-woman antidote to cold science.
The cast is completed by Jess Barbour, Matthew Hager, Christopher J. Helton, and Maggie Lea, all of whom do solid jobs in multiple roles as lab techs, clinical fellows, Bearing's students, and the code team. Hager has a particularly affecting moment when, as a student, his request for an extension is rebuffed by Bearing. The hurt on his face and the set of his shoulders tell us that he'll take the F and attend his grandmother's funeral.
This play could be produced on a bare stage, but it is enhanced by Chris Bernier's well-conceived and realistic hospital setting, with clever pull-on components to fill in other scenes. Eric Alexander Collins' sound design ratchets the anxiety level ever higher, as does Charlie Morrison's slightly oppressive lighting. Unfortunately, for the final moment in which Bearing's spirit departs, he aims a very bright light blindingly into the audience's eyes. If we weren't meant to see her go, darkness would have worked just as well.
The run continues through May 8. For details, see the sidebar.
P.S. This play has been done in Raleigh at least once before, by the Justice Theatre Company, in 2014. For a review of that production, click here.
*Note (added 5/6/16): It has come to our attention that it is the script that calls for this overlap, not the choice of the director. The points made above remain valid, however, as it was clarity that suffered at this point.