a heartfelt and erudite play about a woman coming to terms with cancer.
As a professor of John Donne’s literature, Dr. Vivian Bearing — superbly rendered by Rena Cherry Brown — has lived her life immersed in the minute distinctions of words and punctuation. Scholarship and inquiry have ruled her life. Now she approaches death while studying her own life and analyzing the medical profession that, in turn, is analyzing and studying her.
Cherry Brown’s two-hour near monologue drives the narrative; other performers drop into illuminative vignettes from Vivian’s past. A childhood moment between Vivian and her father, played by James Laster, is particularly touching. Teaching scenes provide clues to Vivian’s insights into poetry and her cluelessness into student relationships. Kelly Armstrong, Ryan Brown, Amy Kellett and James Poole are authentic in their portrayal of students and medical interns. Jean H. Miller is strong as Vivian’s teacher, E.M. Ashford.
The scenes of Vivian’s diagnosis and treatment ring with frustration. While some of what is depicted does take place in the real world, other scenes are so over-written as to diminish the realism and therefore the power of the play.
Vivian’s medical team offers yin and yang contrasts. The caring nurse, Susie, sees Vivian’s suffering, while the clinical researcher, Dr. Posner, sees only illness to be cured. Unexpectedly, parallels between Vivian’s focus on scholarship and Dr. Posner’s focus on research mirror each other.
As the nurse, Mundy Spears gives a multi-dimensional portrayal of a woman who is not as intellectually gifted as Vivian but whose compassion is what Vivian needs in her last hours. When Susie transfers Vivian from wheelchair to bed, the contact rings with accuracy and clarifies the lack of human contact in Vivian’s life. That action was an inspired directorial choice.
Matt Bassett reveals the clinical researcher, Dr. Posner, slowly. His interactions with Vivian are by the book, until Bassett opens a chink on Posner’s motivations by describing his fascination with the durability of cancer cells.
Director Richard Pilcher brings out the best in his cast, using the small stage extremely well.
But finally, this is Vivian Bearing’s story, and this performance is Rena Cherry Brown’s show. It is a demanding skill to maintain the proverbial fourth wall while bringing the audience into the play’s theatricality. Cherry Brown does so excellently. While remaining realistic, she adds meaning with a turn of head, a roll of eyes, a simple stare.
Wit is an intense play. It has structural brilliance, but there are flaws in the writing. Bay Theatre brings out both the subtlety and the best of the play, depicting the value of a life.
Wit by Margaret Edson. Stage Manager: Katherine Kaufmann. Set designer: Ken Sheats. Lighting designer: Preston Strawn. Sound designer: Andy Serb. Costumer: Christina McAlpine. Property manager: Jo Ann Gidos.
Playing thru November 6 at 8pm FSa; 2pm Su at Bay Theatre Company, 275 West St., Annapolis. $35-$45 w/age discounts; rsvp: 410-268-1333; www.baytheatre.org.