To paraphrase English poet John Donne, Death is not “too proud” to come knocking on 50-year-old Vivian Bearing’s door in Margaret Edson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play Wit, now making a return visit to Los Angeles in a production by Actors Co-op that simply could not be better.  

Bearing, a 50-year-old university professor and Donne scholar, is forced to look Death squarely in the face when she is informed of her Stage 4 Ovarian Cancer by a doctor who would have flunked out of med school had Bedside Manner been a required class. Over the course of her aggressive eight-month treatment (“the strongest think we have to offer you”), Vivian will experience a hell most of us can scarcely imagine.  

If Wit forces us to do just accompany Vivian on her terrifying journey, Edson’s one-and-only produced play does so with so much humor, heart, and yes, wit, that rather than become the depressing TV Movie Of The Week it could have turned out in lesser hands, Wit proves to be a truly inspirational, and often laugh-out-loud funny ninety minutes of theater.

As Professor Vivian Bearing, Ph.D. undergoes her debilitating treatment of experimental chemotherapy, she speaks directly to the audience, recalling her childhood, her teaching career, and, at one particularly witty point, the moment she received her diagnosis from that business-only M.D.:

Vivian:  I will never forget the time I learned I had cancer.
Dr. Kelekian: You have cancer.
Vivian:  See.  Unforgettable.

Ever the professor, Vivian lectures her audience on the differences between “I feel good” and “I feel well” as a response to the inevitable “How are we today?” which prefaces every single medical visit, whether by doctor, nurse, or orderly.  (FYI, Vivian’s preferred reply is a simple “Fine,” a compromise which allows her to avoid having to decide whether to follow “feel” with a subjective complement or an adverb.) 

John Donne’s salient feature, Vivian tells us, is wit. So is Vivian’s, as when she recalls being visited by an enthusiastic team of doctors early on in her treatment. “The attention was nice for the first five minutes,” she tells us, then adds, “Now I know how a poem feels.” 

As Wit unfolds, we see in flashbacks that Professor Vivian Bearing had been as (forgive the pun) overbearing and callous towards her students as her doctors are to her now.  When a student comes begging for an extension on a paper’s deadline, Vivian tells her coldly, “Do what you will. The paper is due when it is due.”  Later, as she begins to see her life in a much different light, Vivian begins to reflect on time (“It goes so slowly and yet it is so scarce”) and the paradox of a treatment which “imperils my own health.”  At one point, discussing the often annoying young research M.D. assigned to her case, a former student to whom she had given an A- and who has now left her supine, legs spread for a pelvic examination in order to go get a female to be in the room with him per hospital regulations, Vivian spits out, “I wish I’d given him an A!”  Later, having paused to “barf my brains out,” she comments wryly, “My vocabulary has taken a turn for the Anglo Saxon.”  

Marianne Savell has directed Wit with the sensitivity and attention to character development that only an actor can bring to the role of director, and it shows in the rich, textured performances she has elicited from her cast, most especially from Nan McNamara as Vivian, a role which won Kathleen Chalfant the Obie and Drama Desk awards and scored Emma Thompson nominations for the Emmy and the Golden Globe.

The role of Vivian may in fact be one of the most challenging ever written for an actress, not simply because it requires her to shave her head and (in most productions, though not this one) to appear fully naked, but because Vivian must move back and forth between scenes of excruciating suffering followed immediately by sardonic remarks to the audience about her condition. It requires an actress to go places most roles scarcely go near.  Actors Co-op treasure Nan McNamara is fully up to the challenge, one which makes her previous turn as Elizabeth Proctor in The Crucible seem a veritable picnic by comparison.  Her natural warmth concealed under a veil of at times icy sarcasm, McNamara shows us Vivian’s intelligence, her pluck, her vulnerability, her strength, and (there’s that word again) her wit. McNamara’s Vivian will win … and break your heart.

Supporting performances couldn’t be better, with particular praise due a trio of prized Co-op members. Daniel J. Roberts, so brilliant in last year’s The Crucible, does excellent work once again as Dr. Jason Posner, a former student of Vivian’s whose passion for research blinds him to the fact that he is dealing with a living, breathing human being.  If Roberts weren’t the likeable performer that he is, the role could be insufferable.  Roberts makes Jason unexpectedly sympathetic despite the many times his cluelessness to Vivian’s suffering threatens to turn him into the villain of the piece. Tawny Mertes’ work as Laura in The Glass Menagerie and Audrey in Leading Ladies has proven her versatility in both drama and comedy.  Here she brings her innate sweetness and girl-next-door quality to the role of nurse Susie Monahan, Wit’s voice of reason and humanity.  Though the role is peripheral in early scenes, later when Susie counsels Vivian on the need to decide what will be done should her heart stop beating, Mertes turns teacher to Vivian’s pupil, and subsequently, when Susie goes into attack mode as a small army of hospital doctors and technicians attempt to resuscitate Vivian against her will, she becomes a tigress defending her endangered cub, all of this to stunning effect.  Lori Berg, Amanda Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie, has two brief but memorable scenes as the poetry professor who inspired the young Vivian and later ends up her sole hospital visitor. When Berg gets into bed with McNamara and reads her with aching tenderness from a children’s book she has brought along, the moment is a profoundly moving one.

Phil Crowley has a couple of terrific scenes, one as the doctor who informs Vivian of her terminal illness like a mechanic informing a customer of needed car repairs, and another as five-year-old Vivian’s adoring father, who while reading to her from a Beatrix Potter book, teaches her the meaning of “soporific.” (The lesson later has a great payoff involving Susie and Vivian.)  Beth Castle, Marco Esteves, Alison Freeman, and Preston Vanderslice undertake numerous supporting roles—technicians, fellows, students, and code team members—doing fine work in all capacities.

Gary Lee Reed’s set is an appropriately sterile blend of white screens and hospital curtains which not only suit the play’s mostly medical settings but also provide quick transitions from location to location. James L. Moody’s lighting is hospital room florescent when necessary, then softens when the play flashes back in time.  Paula Higgins gets high marks for her costume design as does Joseph King Barkley for his original music and Julie M. Smith for her prop design.

And now, about the nudity which Edson’s script specifies in no uncertain terms, and which Co-op subscribers might well object to, this being a Christian-based theater company performing on a church campus. Suffice it to say that Savell, Reed, and Moody have not only found a way to respect the playwright’s vision without offending conservative audience members. They have also created what may well be the most exquisitely inspiring final tableau this play has ever ended with.  I am awestruck by the brilliance of their choice. 

Despite its humor and ultimately inspirational message, Wit still has tough scenes to sit through, and audience members are cautioned to prepare themselves to go to some dark, frightening places. The rewards far outweigh the challenges, however, and in hands as gifted as those who have put together this Actors Co-op production, Wit once again triumphs over the obstacles Death has put in its way.

Actors Co-Op Crossley Terrace Theatre, 1769 N. Gower St., Hollywood. www.actorsco-op.org

–Steven Stanley
February 28, 2010
                                                                             Photos: Lindsay Schnebly

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