It helps to have someone holding your hand when you look over the edge of the precipice. Even if you've always lived alone, felt self sufficient and devoted yourself to the life of the mind.
Margaret Edson's Wit is the portrait of literature professor Vivian Bearing, a devotee of 17th century English literature renowned for her publications on the metaphysical poetry of John Donne. At the age of 50 this scholar has been discovered to be the victim of Stage IV ovarian cancer. Our time with her is spent in the cancer ward, except for brief flashbacks to happy moments - as a child, learning to read; as a graduate student discovering the woman professor who became her mentor; standing authoritatively in front of a class of undergraduates, challenging them to grapple with the conceits of Donne's poetry.
Bearing's thoughts spin as she confronts the unimaginative protocol realities of medicine. She works to remain objective and in intellectual control, occasionally sharing with us a fugue state, sometimes even over the unnerving revelations being delivered by her physicians.
This piece demands a virtuoso performance every night, by a virtuoso performer, and Judith Laird is exactly that. Wit is essentially a monologue with regular lapses into conventional stage representation. The frail, earnest protagonist speaks directly to us as audience, acknowledges our presence and even comments in passing, "I have only two hours here before I die." That ironic confiding in the spectators has a touch of the metaphysical to it, a shadowed reflection of Donne's perspective in the Holy Sonnets written late in his life.
The tenth of those sonnets, “Death Be Not Proud,” becomes the touch piece for this riveting depiction, particularly in its final line: And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die. Bearing's mentor Dr. Ashford berates her for a possibly erroneous reading of the punctuation -- comma or colon? -- and as the climax of the piece nears, Bearing returns to those dazzling lines of Donne.
Wit conjoins the two fundamental aspects of our natures, the perishable physical body and the inhabiting spirit that possesses intelligence and wit capable of metaphysical understanding. Edson's creation Vivian Bearing has subsisted almost entirely in the rarefaction of the mind -- she is a childless, essentially friendless Vestal at the altar of academia. During this evening we live with her as she belatedly discovers and experiences the failing of the body that has carried that spirit. We know what is going to happen -- she told us in the opening minutes -- but we are impelled by her candor to witness as her invulnerability breaks down and she accepts, however reluctantly, the warmth of human touch.
Director Jeff Hinkle has also chosen well for the secondary characters. Craig Kanne is the brisk cancer researcher Dr. Kelekian, ready to subject this patient to debilitating chemo research. That portrait of indifference is balanced by the brief, engagng moment when Kanne drifts through Bearing's memories as her father teaching her to read.
Clay Avery has carried a lot of metaphorical spears on the City Theatre stage, but in this piece he brings just the right combination of awe, seriousness, vulnerability and bumbling needed to depict attending resident Dr. Posner. Vanessa Marie as Bearing's principal nurse caregiver is alert, receptive and kind, a last refuge as Bearing's body overwhelms her spirit. Kristen Bennett plays Bearing's mentor Dr. Ashford, both as the emphatic middle-aged scholar and later as the quiet, precise grandmother who visits, carrying the children's book so open and uncomplicated in its message.
Another irony is the fact that Avery, Marie and Bennett were all tribe members in the City's production of the musical Hair last fall -- a celebration of youthful vitality that saw full houses and long lines of the wait-listed outside the theatre. On the opening weekend of this deeply intelligent contemplation of the ending of life by a character entirely bereft of hair -- a piece also bearing a one-word title -- there was no such press for tickets. One can hope that word of mouth and Robert Faires' positive review in the Austin Chronicle will help change that.
Like the fictional Professor Bearing, I'm a derivative scrivener, delving into the work of others to find and articulate meaning and sustenance. Wit -- or W;t, as it's sometimes titled, taking sly advantage of that errant semi-colon -- is a deeply moving evening. Although this story deals with events at the very edge of that frightening precipice dividing life and death, it offers not a single moment of bathos. City's production is a strong affirmation of the matters of the mind, simple humanity and human dignity.
DEATH be not proud, though some have called thee Mighty and dreadfull, for, thou art not so, For, those, whom thou think'st, thou dost overthrow, Die not, poore death, nor yet canst thou kill me. From rest and sleepe, which but thy pictures bee, 5 Much pleasure, then from thee, much more must flow, And soonest our best men with thee doe goe, Rest of their bones, and soules deliverie. Thou art slave to Fate, Chance, kings, and desperate men, And dost with poyson, warre, and sicknesse dwell, 10 And poppie, or charmes can make us sleepe as well, And better then thy stroake; why swell'st thou then; One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally, And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die.
And death shall be no more, death, thou shalt die.
And death shall be no more: death, thou shalt die.
Lisa Scheps and Stuart Moulton interview director Jeff Hinkle and cast members on KOOP-FM's Off Stage and on the Air, March 14 (15 min.)