Wit is a moving, harrowing, revelatory play about life and death, God and science, compassion and cruelty. As we watch English professor Dr. Vivian Bearing confront a painful cancer and its even more painful treatment, we are drawn to reflect on our own lives, uncertain as they are, and the edifices we have built against time and tragedy. Though the play is too complex to be reduced to a single meaning, its most central teaching seems to be that there is nothing more essential than human kindness, no quality more urgent, no acquirement more indispensable.
When push comes to shove — when her disease and its therapy have brought her degradation and despair — it’s not John Donne’s brilliant meditations on death and the afterlife that bring Bearing peace so much as a Popsicle offered by a caring nurse, a child’s story read to her by a warmhearted mentor. This is news to Bearing, who taught her classes on Donne with flinty precision and who gloried in her own intellect to the dismay of her overmatched students. That her enlightenment comes so late in the story — with her death only days away — doesn’t mitigate its power. Like Ivan Ilyich in Tolstoy’s great novella, she comes awake just in time. And we in the audience, with perhaps a little more to hope for, see this light right along with her.
The play, which won the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for author Margaret Edson, begins with Bearing addressing the audience while hooked up to an IV pole and wearing a red baseball cap to hide her bald head. What follows is the story of her diagnosis with stage four metastatic ovarian cancer, her decision to undergo eight punishing cycles of chemotherapy, and her flashbacks, intermittently, to the moment when she first knew that she loved the English language, to a tense encounter with Donne expert Dr. E. M. Ashford, and to episodes of teaching Donne’s Holy Sonnets to a class full of barely comprehending students. Most of the play takes place in the hospital, though, where she’s watched by former pupil Jason Posner, M.D. (he remembers her class as a kind of “boot camp”) and subjected to repeated, humiliating physical examinations. If the doctors who look in on her could all use a course in empathy, there’s fortunately one caregiver — Nurse Susie Monahan — who, alone in the hospital, appears to act out of love. And as a counterpoint to Bearing’s almost animal encounter with sickness and death, there are Donne’s linguistically sophisticated poems on the very same subjects, as taught by Ashford and Bearing, and even projected onto the hospital curtains of Scott Cooper’s set. To watch Bearing in pain as she endures more rounds of chemo, and then to be made aware of Donne’s poetry about death and salvation, is an experience as complex as any the theater can offer. If great art is the art that combines beauty and depth, Wit is great art.
The American Stage production at The Palladium does it justice. Kim Crow as Vivian Bearing is strong and sarcastic when the going is good, stunned and less caustic when the going gets rough, and then terribly needy as death approaches and her pain reaches levels she never thought possible. Crow is also very funny from time to time, and even arrogant when the subject is her appreciation of Donne. As the doctor and former student who has the most contact with her in the hospital, Bill Grennan has a Tom Hanks likability: Even with his utter insensitivity to his patient’s humanity, he’s just the boy-next-door who happens to find cancer fascinating, as he must have found astronomy or evolution fascinating in years past. Joe Parra is tellingly clumsy and clueless as Dr. Harvey Kelekian, the first M.D. to diagnose Bearing and recommend her cycles of treatment; he seems to find human weakness embarrassing, like a poorly covered blemish. And as Nurse Monahan, the one with a heart, LuLu Picart is endearing without ever seeming emblematic. One imagines that she simply treats all her patients with the same affection. Todd Olson’s direction is impeccable, and Cooper’s set, mostly made up of curtains and a few pieces of furniture, is as coldly sensible as any hospital interior I’ve ever seen. Cooper also designed Bearing’s hospital gown and the other costumes.
Should you see Wit in spite of the fearsomeness of its subject? Absolutely. This is drama that can change, or at least redirect, your life. As Donne elsewhere remarks, this bell tolls for all of us. If an inspired work of art can remind us of that fact, we need it in our repertoire.
Few plays are as important. See it if you can.