Death Be Not Proud
THEATER WIT written by Margaret Edson directed by Derek Anson Jones starring Judigh Light Through Feb. 27 Wilbur Theater
Derek Anson Jones
Through Feb. 27
As the title itself implies, Wit is indeed a very witty play. The seemingly incongruous mix of comedy and drama is one of the most effective qualities of first time playwright Margaret Edson's thoughtful play. The critically acclaimed recipient of a Pulitzer Prize, Wit manages to recreate its off-Broadway magic in a shining Boston debut. And shining brightest of all is Judith Light, starring as the tough literature professor diagnosed with ovarian cancer, Dr. Vivian Bearing. Ms. Light earned national fame in the '80s with her portrayal of Angela Bower on the hit comedy series "Who's the Boss." Having undergone a remarkable transformation for her role in Wit, Light is now barely recognizable. Her shorn head, considerable weight loss and hollowed eyes here stand in stark contrast to the big-haired, gaudy TV character.
Even her voice is different. From the moment she takes the stage, the tiny theater booms with the sound of her lines. Her voice is aggressive, aloof, somewhat sarcastic and above all, loud. This is a woman who wants to be heard, even though her emphatic cry for attention is unnecessary. Alone on stage for most of the evening, all audience attention is focused on her, whether we want to focus on her or not. The minimal scenery--white curtains, a hospital bed, an IV machine--and small supporting cast ensures that nothing diverts our concentration from Dr. Bearing's long monologues. This close attention is fitting, considering that neither the fiercely independent Dr. Bearing, nor her disease, seem to receive adequate attention from any of the onstage characters, most notably from the medical community.
It is understandable that Dr. Bearing receives little attention from any personal acquaintances. As an extremely harsh but brilliant John Donne scholar, she has spent her life alienating colleagues, students and family with her arrogance. She is fiercely independent and is proud of her strength and lack of personal connections. Of course, Dr Bearing's attitude begins to change upon undergoing eight intensive chemotherapy sessions that leave her battered and vulnerable.
One would hope the medical community could provide some of the support she lacks in her personal life. Instead, Wit depicts a series of cold, impersonal doctors and technicians whose primary concern, beneath the senseless formalities they are required to spew, is research. In all fairness, each does work with relative competence to save Dr. Bearing's life in the face of metastasized cancer, but only one character attempts to salvage the vanishing shreds of the patient's dignity in the process. Susie (Lisa Tharps) gives a moving performance as the simple-minded nurse who ultimately proves to be more intelligent than she appears in providing Dr. Bearing the compassion she needs.
In addition to Susie, Dr. Ashford (Diane Kagan), Dr. Bearing's old college literature professor, makes a poignant appearance at the deathbed of her old pupil in doubtlessly the most inspired moment of Wit. Kagan performs admirably as a soothing, serene presence in the life of a woman deep in physical pain and admittedly afraid of dying. She comforts Vivian as well as the audience, now taken by the increasingly realistic scenario that Dr. Bearing confronts.
From beginning to end, Wit is relentless in its presentation of the horrors of cancer. There is no intermission breaking the intensity of Dr. Bearing's two-hour performance. There is no avoiding her presence. Even the actual theater reinforces this feeling of intimacy. Standing beside the mammoth Wang Theater only reinforces the small size of the Wilbur, undoubtedly one of the smallest performance centers on Tremont. Thus from the moment Dr. Bearing takes the stage and greets the audience with the abrupt "How are you doing today?" we are drawn into her very personal experience.
Sadly, despite its insightful exploration of terminal illness and all its repercussions, Wit cannot offer a solution, a cure. Dr. Bearing informs us two minutes into the play that she will ultimately die. Perhaps an answer to some of the dilemmas appears in the John Donne sonnets that provide Dr. Bearing with a coping mechanism for cancer. A comma is the only punctuation separating life from death in the verses of Donne. There is no conclusive period, no exclamation point separating the two juxtaposed thoughts; only a simple, smooth transitional comma. Of course, cancer is not the simplest or smoothest transition between life and death. Dr. Bearing's experience thus seems to completely contradict this idea, with one important exception. The last moments of her life are exceptionally tranquil. She dies in her sleep and some time elapses before her death is even noticed by the hospital staff. Then, as doctors and technicians hover over her lifeless body, she creeps away serenely, sheds her gown and stands bathed in white light as the curtain falls. Her departure exudes quiet, dignified glory. Her transition to death is more of a comma than an intense, melodramatic instant. If nothing else, we can take comfort in the hope of that sweet transition, the comma.