There's a scene in Margaret Edson's 1999 Pulitzer Prize-winning play Wit in which a professor vehemently defends the use of a modest comma over a "hysterical" semicolon in the last line of the John Donne sonnet beginning, "Death be not proud." When punctuated properly, "Nothing but a breath - a comma - separates life from life everlasting," she explains.
This may sound like nitpicking, but that comma, that breath, is the brief space in which Wit takes place. The play is an account of the valiant but futile battle waged by Vivian Bearing, a world-class John Donne scholar, against stage four metastatic ovarian cancer; there is no stage five, as she matter-of-factly informs us.
Dedicated to literary research, Vivian now becomes equally dedicated to being a medical guinea pig. But as she discovers, studying and being studied are very different pursuits.
While a comma may be more modest than a semicolon, Edson's play is hardly a modest undertaking for the actress who plays Vivian. There's nothing easy about it for the performer, or for the audience.
Binnie Ritchie Holum, who gallantly takes the part at Fell's Point Corner Theatre, has some experience playing seriously ill, bedridden patients. Five years ago, she was the quadriplegic protagonist in Whose Life Is It Anyway? at the Vagabond Players. A dancer and choreographer as well as an actress, Holum understands the power of being still and the way in which the small gesture can fill an entire stage.
Holum plays Vivian as a scholar and professor who is lecturing throughout almost all of Wit; she narrates the course of Vivian's illness and rigorous experimental treatment with the same uncompromising attitude she prided herself in as an academic. But admirable as Holum's performance may be, her portrayal is more credible after Vivian has learned the play's lesson in kindness than before.
Holum is ably supported by the rest of director Donald Russell Owens' cast, with Brigitte Waites deserving commendation for her depiction of the sweet-natured nurse who, though hardly an intellectual, teaches Vivian a great deal. As the medical research fellow whose emotional detachment frighteningly mirrors Vivian's own, the actor who goes by the single name of Maynard registers more irritation than cerebral intensity.
The director makes some interesting, and for the most part, effective choices by having a number of the scenes between Vivian and various authority figures performed with the actors facing the audience instead of each other. This reinforces the isolation that Vivian has made a part of her life. However, the use of blackouts between scenes drains momentum.
"Donne's wit," Vivian explains at one point, "is ... a way to see how good you really are." One could say the same about Edson's demanding play. Fell's Point Corner's production may have some flaws, but it passes the test.
Show times at Fell's Point Corner, 251 S. Ann St., are 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 2 p.m. Sundays, through June 1. Tickets are $12. For more information, call 410-276-7837.
Lorraine Bracco will be the star doffing the towel when Terry Johnson's stage adaptation of The Graduate returns to the Mechanic Theatre Jan. 6-18. Best known for her role as psychiatrist Dr. Jennifer Melfi in the HBO series, The Sopranos, Bracco made her Broadway debut in The Graduate in November. She replaced the show's original star, Kathleen Turner, who portrayed Mrs. Robinson in the pre-Broadway engagement that broke box office records at the Mechanic in January 2002.
A native New Yorker, Bracco worked as a Paris model before beginning her film career in Europe. She made her American movie debut in Ridley Scott's Someone to Watch Over Me and earned Academy Award and Golden Globe nominations for her depiction of a Mafiosa wife in Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas.
Tickets to The Graduate will range from $22.50-$60 and are currently available only as part of the subscription series at the Mechanic and Hippodrome. Individual tickets to the show will go on sale in the fall. For more information, call 800-343-3103 or visit www.broadwayacross america.com/baltimore.
This season, instead of one big gala, Everyman Theatre is offering a series of small fund-raising events. Next up is A.R. Gurney's Love Letters, an epistolary play that spans 50 years and is always performed as a reading. Company members Stan Weiman and Rosemary Knower will portray the lifelong correspondents at 7 p.m. May 29 at the Peabody Court Hotel, 612 Cathedral St.
Then at 8 p.m. June 21, at Everyman, 1727 N. Charles St., Tana Hicken will perform The Belle of Amherst, under the direction of her husband, Donald. Tana Hicken, who has performed William Luce's one-woman play about Emily Dickinson to acclaim on and off for two decades, is a former company member at Washington's Arena Stage and lead actress at Center Stage as well as Everyman. Her husband heads the theater department at the Baltimore School for the Arts.