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"Wit" Compelling Drama At Bay Theatre

Dylan Roche
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October 19, 2011

By Sandra Kemick

A woman bravely faces the audience and tells us that she is being treated for late stage cancer and the prognosis is far from good. As the play progresses she will take us back to scenes of her life before cancer and her path towards ending life and finding grace.

Bay Theatre Company, the only professional theater in our county, opens its tenth season with “Wit.” It was the first play written by Margaret Edson, and went on to win every Off-Broadway award, then the Pulitzer Prize.

Audiences should not be put off by the play’s subject, for this is an uplifting story of the road to redemption. The play’s protagonist, Vivian Bearing, is an accomplished scholar and professor, specializing in the work of the Seventeenth century metaphysical poet John Dunne. His poems deal with questions of faith, mortality, sin and the fear of death. Verbal ingenuity or “wit” provided Vivian with fodder for a lifetime of research and writing.

We see Vivian as a child and later as a teacher. In this well crafted play, as she goes through life-altering chemotherapy, Vivian becomes the student, the subject, and finally the child.

Bay Theatre has as one of its associate artists the talented Rena Cherry Brown in the role of Vivian. As the character who is on the stage for every moment of the play, the actor in the role of Vivian has multiple challenges. Brown is able to grab our attention from the first moment. The play presents us with a Vivian who is not likeable. She is smart, but not feeling. We admire her intelligence and intellectual creativity, but not her soul. She is a woman with no family, and few friends. She has given up a connection to people to find a connection to a long dead poet. Her students and colleagues respect her, but do not like her. Yet Brown finds the humanity in her character and presents it to us carefully and gradually.

She begins by exploring the doctor-patient relationship. Vivian jokes about the doctor’s opening line, ”How are you feeling today?” She is part of a clinical trial, with the researching physician working to get data on a new drug. It is clear that none of the doctors actually care about her feelings, just the results on her chart. In a clever plot contrivance, the young researching Fellow, Dr. Jason Posner (Matt Bassett) was a former student of Vivian’s. He knew her as a professor, yet he is, in his career, a parallel to Vivian as a scholar. He finds the emotions of his sick patients an annoyance, and would rather work in a lab with just the cancer cells. Vivian, facing excruciating pain and death, discards that professional arrogance, but Jason maintains it until the end.

The play’s most easily likeable character is Suzie (Mundy Spears), the primary care nurse throughout the trial. She does not have the “wit” of Vivian or Jason, but she has the talent to guide Vivian down the path to redemption. Suzie is simple and kind, and after all the intellectual discourse and discussions of mortality, the play boils down to kindness as the path to grace.

The play is beautifully directed by Richard Pilcher. Not only does he get an award worthy performance from Rena Cherry Brown, but he paces the play perfectly. Every thoughtful moment, including a dissection of a Dunne poem, is clearly presented, yet the tempo never slows. The small space at Bay Theatre may challenge an interior designer, but every inch is used creatively and expertly to portray a doctor’s office, various medical testing rooms and the hospital room. The supporting cast rises to the level of Brown’s performance, each giving nuance and meaning to their somewhat flawed characters.

Anyone touched by cancer, anyone in the medical field or anyone who admires the work of an accomplished cast should put “Wit” on their must see list. Take friends, family, your book club, but go and allow time and digest these issues together.

“Wit” plays at 275 West Street in Annapolis through November 6.

410-268-1333, www.baytheatre.org


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