Intense lessons from life, death

Review: Turning the theater into a classroom, `Wit' has the power and clarity to show rather than tell.

March 03, 2000|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Like its main character, "Wit" is fiercely intelligent. Like its title, it is illuminated by bright shafts of humor. And like its overriding theme -- the need for compassion -- it is, ultimately, deeply emotional.

All of these elements come through with brilliant intensity in the touring production of Margaret Edson's 1999 Pulitzer Prize-winning play, now at Washington's Kennedy Center. An examination of two professions that extol intelligence and eschew emotion -- medical research and academic scholarship -- this is a play that challenges the heart and the intellect, a play that is smart and sensitive without succumbing to sentimentality.

The subject of "Wit" -- an English professor battling late-stage ovarian cancer -- might easily be the stuff of a TV movie of the week. And Judith Light, who stars in the touring production, has done her share of these, not to mention soaps and sitcoms (she's best known for "Who's the Boss?").

But there's nothing the least bit soapy or sitcom-y about this hard-hitting play or Light's deeply felt performance. For starters, Light is barely recognizable without her mane of blond hair. Her shaved head partly concealed under a red baseball cap, she plays the role of Professor Vivian Bearing draped in a hospital gown and, for the most part, hooked up to an IV. At the start of the play, she speaks in the authoritative, declamatory tone she used in her classroom. As the action progresses, her voice softens. And as Light's Bearing becomes less imposing and more sympathetic, she even seems to grow smaller.

The playwright, a Washington native, has given "Wit" a self-consciously theatrical format, in which Bearing narrates the action, addressing the audience directly and letting us know, for example, that "irony is a literary device that will necessarily be deployed to great effect."

Bearing teaches 17th century English poetry, with a specialization in the complex writing of John Donne, whose poems, in the words of a former student, make "Shakespeare sound like a Hallmark card." The professor is an internationally recognized expert in Donne's Holy Sonnets, which deal with death and salvation. But while she can explicate a poem with precision -- and does the same thing with the medical terms her oncologist spews at her -- she has never opened herself up enough to feel Donne's meaning.

Accustomed to being in charge, Bearing now finds her disease taking over. The lesson she learns from her illness and from two hospital staffers is one she never learned from books.

Bearing tells us that her primary nurse, Susie, has a brain that "was never very sharp." But the professor's priorities change by the end of the play. Though Susie, played with sweetness and empathy by Lisa Tharps, may not bristle with intellect, she offers a deep well of kindness -- something Bearing has found unnecessary, until now.

The research fellow assigned to Bearing's case, Dr. Jason Posner, turns out to be one of her former students. In a frighteningly credible performance, Daniel Sarnelli plays Posner as a pure researcher, impatient with the very notion of establishing an acceptable bedside manner. As we discover in a flashback to Bearing's teaching days, he has learned all too well from her heartless example. "The young doctor, like the senior scholar, prefers research to humanity," she realizes, in her 11th hour.

Under the direction of Leah C. Gardiner -- based on the original direction of Edson's childhood friend, Derek Anson Jones, who died of AIDS complications in January -- "Wit" is enacted with the type of unremitting clarity Bearing has sought throughout her life. Just when that unremitting quality threatens to become unbearable, Edson inserts a gentle, moving scene with Bearing's own former professor (Diane Kagan), a role model in ways Bearing never imagined.

Much has been written about the fact that playwright Edson is a kindergarten teacher committed to remaining in the classroom even after the stunning success of this first play. But the theater can be a classroom, too, and when it teaches by example instead of didacticism, by showing instead of telling, it has the power to open people's hearts as well as their minds. "Wit" has that power.

`Wit'

Where: Kennedy Center, Washington

When: 7: 30 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, matinees at 2: 30 p.m. Saturdays, Sundays and March 23. Through March 26

Tickets: $20-$65

Call: 800-444-1324

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