“Death, be not proud, though some have callèd thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;”
Wit, on the surface, is a straight-forward play about one woman’s battle with cancer – insidious advanced metastatic ovarian cancer, to be exact. It is a tragi-comedy of sorts. As the lead character, Vivian Bearing, Ph.D. (Tandy Cronyn), informs the audience during her first monologue, “I think I die in the end.” For the next 90+ intermissionless minutes the audience is confronted in the first-person by Dr. Bearing, a 50 year-old professor of 17th Century metaphysical poetry, as she confronts life, and life everlasting.
Wit is not a pretty play. It is intense, compelling, at times brutally uncomfortable, and to anyone who has been touched by the ravages of cancer it is perhaps too raggedly real. Yet it exudes a sense of humanness, of warmth and tenderness that seem oddly appropriate for the subject matter. As the title suggests, rather than focusing on the somber aspects of death and dying, Wit is…well, witty.
Dr. Bearing is a woman who fell in love with words and who married to her first love. She is quite alone in the world and is happy to be so. She is smart, tough, and respected in her field. Her work on the Holy Sonnets of 17th Century metaphysical poet John Donne is legendary. Yet her scholarship never advanced her past the ivory towers of academia and into the real world of human contact. She somehow has never connected the passion, the spiritual wrestling Donne was trying to convey, to humanity. Instead she views life and death clinically; unemotionally. As a result, she must endure the pain and humiliation of her eight-month long cancer treatments alone.
During the course of her treatments at a major research hospital, Dr. Bearing is confronted by an amazingly insensitive research fellow, Dr. Jason Posner (Matt Chiorini). A former student of hers (he received and “A-“), Bearing discovers in Posner a portrait of herself. Both pursue their craft for the purity of the scholarship; both have lost sight of the humanity their chosen fields were designed to uplift.
As the treatments continue, and as the cancer continues to ravage her body, Dr. Bearing begins to break down emotionally. Her precise, flowing diction gives way to anguished cries, and her stoic endurance cracks enough to admit that she is scared. She finds comfort in the simple human kindness of her nurse (Julie Rowe), and in a poignant, heartbreaking moment, while sharing a pop-cicle, she learns she is going to die.
In one of the most tender moments in the play, Dr. Bearing’s mentor, an aging Dr. E.M. Ashford (Barbara Redmond) stops in for a visit. Ashford is on her way to see her great-grandson and takes a few moments to comfort the dying woman by reading a classic children’s story to her. Amazingly, she discovers the story to be a metaphor for God’s love and forgiveness.
Wit is a stunning piece of theater. Its unflinching examination of the human condition, complete with its exploration of themes of life and death, sin and salvation, forgiveness and simple human kindness is remarkable. Still, this is not an easy play to watch. Although filled with humor and wit, it nonetheless pulls no punches, and the reality it portrays may be too much for some people to deal with. It is certainly too harsh for younger theatre-goers. But those who can resist the temptation to hold the subject matter at arms length with find Wit a richly rewarding experience.
Wit is presented by Tennessee Repertory Theatre at TPAC’s Polk Theatre September 20-October 7, 2000.