Clad in a hospital gown and a baseball cap to hide her hair loss, Dr. Vivian Bearing guides us through the last stages of her life in the landmark play Wit. Written 25 years ago, it can still prove to be powerful and topical, as evidenced by a wonderfully acted version running at Aurora Theatre through February 7.
Wit received the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for drama, while a television version won a 2001 Emmy. It’s been consistently produced around the world. Playwright Margaret Edson, who lives in Atlanta and teaches sixth grade social studies at Inman Middle School, worked in the AIDS and cancer inpatient unit of a research hospital briefly. Her time there inspired the play.
In it, a 50-year-old professor, Bearing (Mary Lynn Owen), is diagnosed with stage IV, metastatic ovarian cancer. She has specialized in the metaphysical poetry of John Donne, and has to suddenly deal with a subject she cannot conquer or understand.
After being diagnosed, she almost immediately finds herself at the hospital dealing with high doses — eight full rounds — of experimental chemotherapy. While there, she finds a few folks like herself — such as Dr. Harvey Kelekian (Chris Kayser), who breaks the news to her, and ambitious clinical fellow Jason Posner (Justin Walker), new to the oncology branch — who are more interested in getting the facts correct than in crafting an empathetic bedside manner.
Occasional flashbacks take us back to Vivian’s childhood, her time at college and relationship with Professor E. M. Ashford (Marianne Fraulo) and her experiences with students, many of whom find her tough. Posner, a former student who took Bearing’s class to challenge himself to see if he could get an “A,” refers to the class as “boot camp.”
Edson’s play is a character study of a woman who has tried to hide behind words and intellectualism all her life, and is now facing something she has no idea how to navigate. Bearing is virtually alone in the world, with no spouse or children, and parents who have passed. Susie (Tiffany Mitchenor), a nurse at the hospital, expresses surprise that she has had no visitors.
Wit can be awfully funny. Vivian narrates and the audience is her class. Her frequent frustration with countless hospital workers asking how she is doing breaks some of the tension. Yet befitting its subject matter, “Wit” can also be harrowing and painful. In a play top-heavy with words, a scene where a nurse tries to soothe a patient with a Popsicle — one of the only things she can tolerably digest — is almost heartbreaking.
As directed by Tlaloc Rivas, who most recently staged Mariela en el Desierto at Aurora, Wit is sharply staged, especially the quick-fire hospital scenes where actors dash in and out of Isabel and Moriah Curley-Clay’s set. Of a solid supporting cast, Mitchenor really stands out. Her scenes with Bearing are moving.
A few of the supporting ensemble members, including Fraulo, tend to overdo it. The pacing, too, can be sluggish at times, yet overall this is a rousing start to the 2016 theater season.
It helps enormously that Rivas has Owen on board. She has long been one of the area’s finest actresses, but this might be a new high. One moment she is a fierce, commanding presence — talking down to those around her — and then minutes late she is broken, physically and emotionally, sitting limp in a wheelchair.
She is even able to bring out a warmth to the character that isn’t always evident. I’ve seen lots of Vivian Bearings (including Cynthia Nixon in the 2012 maiden Broadway version), and Owen is as memorable as any.
It’s a shame that Edson — who conducted a talkback after the January 17 performance — has written only one play. She clearly knows the craft. But on the flip side, Wit would be a pretty tough act to follow.