By Karen Isaacs
The 1999 Pulitzer Prize winner, Wit, is getting a fine production at Playhouse on Park in West Hartford through May 8. But those who think of the word “wit” as meaning clever or funny, will be in for a shock, though there are some humorous moments.
This play by Margaret Edison does not pull its punches about cancer, experimental treatments and death. If you have had personal experiences with these issues, the play can be emotionally draining.
Wit had an early production at Long Wharf, starring Kathleen Chalfant in the leading role, which transferred off-Broadway and had a long run. It was revived on Broadway with Cynthia Nixon in 2012.
The title of the play, Wit, refers to the literary wit of the metaphysical poets, particularly John Donne and the sonnet “Death Be Not Proud.” In this context, wit refers to relating disparate elements so as to enlightenment, astuteness and reasoning power. Donne is often considered a “difficult” poet for his metaphysical discussions, namely for his exploration of faith, religion and the spiritual world.
Dr. Vivian Bearing, a professor, is the narrator of the play. We first see her in a hospital gown and hospital setting where we learn she has been undergoing treatment for cancer. She is thin and wears a baseball cap to conceal her hair loss. Soon we realize that she is dying. In a variety of flashbacks, we see both incidents from her life – with her mentor, her father, her students as well as her days since the diagnosis.
We see the young Vivian, a promising scholar of literature, with her mentor, Professor E. M. Ashford. Ashford considers Vivian’s paper to be sentimental and superficial. She instructs her in how the selection of the text (and its punctuation) that Vivian used for the paper on “Death Be Not Proud” has misled her. The use of a semicolon and explanation point rather than a comma and period have changed the meaning dramatically.
Vivian takes the lesson to heart and has become a leading scholar on Donne and his “wit” as well as a demanding professor. She is viewed as one of the toughest at the university where she teaches. But Vivian, who has never married, is tough in other ways as well.
She is confronting advanced ovarian cancer (stage four) and is undergoing experimental chemotherapy. Not only has she agreed to the experimental treatment but she has been determined to take the maximum dosage in the study.
The first time I saw this play, I viewed it as too much a lecture on Donne, but now I see the many connections Margaret Edison makes between Vivian, the literary scholar, and the researcher in charge of the study, Dr. Harvey Kelekian, and the graduate fellow, Dr. Jason Posner, handling the day-to-day treatment. Each of them is rigorously intellectual, not allowing emotion to enter the equation in the relationships. Each is seeking for knowledge and each wears blinders that doesn’t let him see the fuller picture.
Vivian takes pride that her course – which Dr. Posner took om a dare – is so tough and she is so demanding and strict with her students, not giving any thought to them as individuals. The two physicians are equally strict and equally unable to put aside their desires – for maximum useable data – to consider the human cost of getting that data.
Edison raises also the issue of the ethical conundrum in medical research. Often it does not benefit the patient but may provide important knowledge that will help future patients. In fact, it often harms the patient or at least makes the waning days of life physically more difficult. Yet the researcher often does not know when to stop and let nature takes it course since stopping treatment or not resuscitating might jeopardize the data already collected.
This is played out at the end of Vivian’s life between Dr. Posner and Nurse Susan Monahan who, unlike the two researchers, has developed a real relationship with Vivian. It is she that talks her about a DNR (do not resuscitate) order and she that battles Dr. Posner when, despite the order, he tries to resuscitate Vivian to protect that data.
Elizabeth Lande is excellent as Vivian. She gives us a woman, who while in the classroom was unsentimental and tough, does in fact have feelings not just for the literature but also for life. At times she paints a picture of a woman who is still trying to please like the little girl who tried to please her father and later her mentor.
Tim Hackney as Dr. Posner, the graduate fellow, has the most difficult role and only partially succeeds at creating this young researcher. He must blend the confidence of youth with the callousness of someone who is aiming big. His comments about the waste of time in medical school for a researcher to take a course on dealing with patients, may make you want to scream at him. He views this study as just a way station to getting his own lab.
Chuja Sea endows Nurse Monahan with the humanity and warmth that most of the other characters, including Vivian, lack. She manages to keep the character from being only the “good cop” to Posner’s “bad cop.” David Gutschy allows Kelekian to be the breezy supervisor who stops in occasionally.
Director Stevie Zimmerman has handled the awkwardly large playing space well, creating separate areas for the various earlier memories.
Wit is the only play Edison has ever written. For a first play, it is certainly a good one and, I suspect, she wrote from the heart.
It is at Playhouse on Park, 244 Park Rd, West Hartford through May 8. For tickets visit playhouseonpark.org or call 860-523-5900.