Margaret Edson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Wit” is an efficacious gem. Davidson Community Players has done three things very well: set the play on a thrust stage in intimate Armour Street Theatre, tapped Melissa Ohlman-Roberge to direct and put Marla Brown in the leading role.
In the talkback after the show, one of the actresses lauded Ohlman-Roberge as a “master of transition.” Indeed. The main stage hosts the hospital bed. The thrust is where the rest of the action takes place. An ensemble cast morphs from resident physicians to college students. There is a seamless back-and-forth between the main character’s life as a rock-star professor of metaphysical poetry and a woman tackling stage four metastatic ovarian cancer.
She is Vivian Bearing, a professor so tough, so intellectually uncompromising, that a doctor treating her took her course as ammunition to get into med school. He is Jason Posner (Justin Dionne), whose clinical dissection of her case earns her begrudged respect, even as she comes to wish he had the bedside manner she would abhor, had she been healthy.
John Donne is the play’s absent lead. His literary struggles with death and salvation, presented in poetry challenging even to scholars, provide the backdrop to chemotherapy. Bearing taught courses on his “Holy Sonnets,” in which Donne used metaphors to question faith and absolution. As she learns, it is one thing to play with ideas about death; it’s an entirely different thing to be dying.
A play about cancer sounds grim, but the wit in “Wit” is omnipresent. Ohlman-Roberge created two proscenium arches decorated with words. Like the poetry magnets you buy for your refrigerator, these mean nothing individually but beg to be linked into verse. Among them: “perspicacious, infelicitous, creatinine, scansion, lymphatic, proliferation” and, most intriguingly, “shucks said the little bunny.” I stayed for the talkback, so I could keep reading.
It takes a special actress to shave her head and perform soliloquies to an audience only feet away. Brown presents us with a fierce, strong woman confined by a hospital gown. (I can’t think of a more vulnerable setting.) She nails the role.
“Wit” tackles the medical-industrial complex, with its noble ambition to make even the sickest patient a research tool. There are brilliant research doctors, who must indulge in bedside manners they can’t even fake. There is the choice “to battle cancer,” and there is the choice “do not resuscitate.” In 1999, the Pulitzer Board picked a winner.
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