March 27, 2001
A Review by Pat Pinson
This play might take you by surprise. The title Wit leaves the door open for anything -- but it addresses the deepest and most recurring question we humans face -- how shall we live? and die. But it was anything but maudlin or preachy. No quick answers here. And it will move you if you have any emotion at all.
Margaret Epson's Pulitzer winning play is a brilliant interweaving of language at its most erudite and of stark emotional reality -- the old paradox of head and heart. It is funny and wrenching, and has a lean and economic frame for a rich, evocative message. Wow! What a play! And what a performance by Mobile Theater Guild, March 9!
The whole theme of the play is addressed in the punctuation of John Donne's sonnet "Death be not proud." The interpretation of the last lines "One short sleep past, we wake eternally, And Death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die!" rests on whether one goes gently into it (with only a comma) or if one is defiant (with the exclamation point.) The protagonist, Dr. Vivian Bearing, is a 17th century scholar specializing in the poetry of Donne, and is meeting death first hand through her lost fight with cancer. She uses all of the "Wit" or intellectual acumen that he champions as her shield against death (and her earlier life) only to find herself defenseless in the end. "Now is the time for sympathy, for caring. -- I though scholarly would take care of it."
The play is full of another 17th century conceit -- irony. Dr. Bearing's former student becomes her doctor (and teacher) and ironically he is just as concerned about research as she had been, except now, she is the source of study. Insensitivity toward people in the name of research turns on her and the leitmotif of the play becomes a cheery "How are you today?" said without thinking even to a dying person.
In fact, the humorous lines throughout gave the viewer some distance from the emotional trauma and the audience was very responsive. Delivered in such a dire location, they become black humor - but still seem so innocent. The evolution from reason to feeling is controlled and inevitable and is underscored by the change from classical music to Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star, from Donne to Runaway Bunny (an allegory of the soul which God always finds).
Danielle Juzan drew the character of Dr. Vivian Bearing in detailed lines. She shaved her head (surely the ultimate sacrifice for a dramatic role) and held the stage for two unbroken hours barefooted, and in a hospital gown with great presence. She was a believable scholar, a believable patient, and in the end, a believable human being who was puzzled and pained by the emotion of death. She was dignified even without hair or shoes and delivered her comedic irony with deadpan (excuse the pun) seriousness. A striking performance!
The four supporting cast members were also strong and evenly matched. The script was full of professional jargon -- both literary and medical -- which could have easily tripped anybody's tongue. But they acted as if they moved in this milieu every day.
Director Michael McKee made every action authentic; no detail was overlooked. Robin Pool, who was stage manager and costume coordinator, also is a nurse in real life and insured validity of procedures on stage. Philip Tapia's set was as stark as the subject was. An institutional grey back wall came into a fuzzy white circle in the center -- like we experience pain, or the light many experience at death, or it was a screen on which to project a sonnet! The hospital furniture moved in and out much like the people who move in and out of our transitory existence. All in all, the performance was highly unified, exceptionally well done and quite powerful.
Although the house was not packed, the audience was deeply appreciative -- as they should be. This was a thought-provoking play -- just as ART was in the fall -- and shows willingness to address those deeper questions which make us grow if we listen. Bravo, MTG, it's been a good year!
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