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Larger Than Death

Solid Performances are the Soul of Wit

Nurse, Shark: Brigitte Waites ministers to her hard-bitten charge (Binnie Ritchie Holum) in Wit.

By John Barry | Posted 5/7/2003

Wit

Margaret Edson

It may sound like faint praise, but Wit deserved the 1999 Pulitzer before the first line was written. Cancer is, in dramatic terms, not the death of choice. It takes too long, it's frightening and boring, and the chances are that a significant portion of the audience is going to die that way. So why would people want to shell out bucks to go through it twice?

But in Wit, playwright Margaret Edson takes that challenge head-on, and makes her main character run the gauntlet from diagnosis to chemo, partial cure, relapse, and, finally, death. And she does it without crutches. In Wit there are no lovers, no final speeches at Yankee stadium, no last ones for the Gipper, and, interestingly, no religion. For Edson, death isn't a team sport. It's a one-on-one battle.

Since the outcome of this plot is pretty much predetermined, Edson has to put pressure on her protagonist: Vivian, the professor of 17th-century English literature who has been diagnosed with Stage 4 ovarian cancer. So she'd better be an imposing character, if she's going to carry a metaphysical poet and a terminal illness, along with a subordinate cast, on her shoulders.

Vivian Bearing (Binnie Ritchie Holum) fits the bill. She is the college professor of your worst nightmares. She's frightening, she knows her stuff, she hasn't heard of grade inflation, and, in the worst way, she's witty. Her wit crackles, but only when she's got you tied to the stake. Vivian's world tanks when she finds that she has metastatic cancer of the ovaries. Her attending physician Jason (Richard Thurfield) was once a terrified and awestruck student; now he's probing her private parts with the same cold-blooded discipline that she used on metaphysical poets.

Vivian approaches her predicament with dry humor. She has few friends either inside or outside academia, no children, and she is her own next of kin. She has a relationship with a poet, but his name was John Donne, and he died four centuries ago. But she takes what she can get. As she is led through all the indignities of her illness, her surgical wit transforms itself into a passion for living, and gives her a way to make contact with those around her.

Donne helps her out, but that doesn't mean everyone in the audience should run out and get a collected copy. Donne isn't uplifting in the normal way; if anything, Vivian's brief discourses on his use of commas and semicolons in his poetry seem to suck all the life out of him. But on that level, she can take on the disease sucking the life out of her. Analysis, digression, and irony in this play are all tools of passionate minds.

Binnie Ritchie Holum brings to this challenging role the comic sensibility that made her such a force in last year's Habeas Corpus at the Vagabond and Axis' Fuddy Meers. Here, she plays a woman who's idiosyncratic, snippy, a little bit of a nut case. Brigitte Waites puts in an excellent performance as Susie, her hard-suffering nurse and mother figure. Thurfield, meanwhile, plays Jason as a student who has inherited all the cold-blooded discipline of his former mentor. He notably avoids the temptation to sentimentalize the role of Vivian's mentee: While he expresses affection and admiration, he maintains a distance from her to the end.

Detachment and passion make for strange bedfellows, as do metaphysics and love. Both Vivian and John Donne have found ways to negotiate that territory, and the production needs to focus on the force of those combinations. Without the right edge, Wit is in danger of slipping from a character drama into a Tuesdays With Morrie-like meditation on spiritual renewal. As a professor, Vivian was larger than life and, given the ending, she is larger than death.

Holum shines at those moments when Vivian starts falling apart and the inner child pokes its head out. Less emphasis is given to Vivian as a feared personality at those moments. That takes away a little of the edge: At the risk of comparing Vivian and Donald Rumsfeld, there seems to be a certain fire in her humor that is intended to skewer instead of to amuse.

At the beginning of the Fells Point Corner Theatre production, members of the audience are asked to remain seated for 1 hour and 45 minutes. That's a lot to ask, and the effect is meant to be one of rising tension. Whenever that sense is lost, either because of dead space or tossed-off lines, the audience sits back and the play starts to move to its appointed conclusion by inertia. While the FPCT production largely avoids these derailments, Wit is not so much about the dying process as it is about Vivian. Wit for both John Donne and Vivian is a weapon of choice; it doesn't reconcile us with death, it mercilessly deconstructs it.

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