In Margaret Edison’s Wit, Vivian Bearing is a tough as nails teacher of 17th century poetry specializing in John Donne. She also has just been told that she has stage four cancer; “there is no stage five” she tells the audience.
Suggesting she participate in an experimental cancer treatment, Vivian is introduced to two people who become entwined in her life in the hospital: researcher Dr. Jason Pozner, a former student who is a callous as she is, and primary nurse Susie, who still has her youthful idealism.
Because Vivian is a brilliant scholar who is also uncompromising and unsympathetic she has not built up any lasting relationships, so no one comes to visit her during her arduous treatment. It’s heartbreaking.
John Webber’s striking set towers over the action like crashing waves pouring from either side. One side is a like a large white hospital sheet and the other a flurry on over sized papers signifying hospital charts and student essays. On stage is a single hospital bed and other equipment is wheeled out as needed during the barrage of hospital tests.
Director Angela Konrad has assembled a wonderful cast centered on the magnetic Katharine Venour, who makes Vivian stoic and droll and always likeable. Dan Amos plays the fussy Dr. Pozer with distracted charm, and Julie Cassleman gives a gentle performance as the warm hearted Susie.
Artistic Director Ron Reed brings a curt but genial quality to Dr. Kelekian and Erla Faye Forsyth is simply brilliant in the small role Vivian teacher, the only person to visit her in the hospital.
The ensemble of actors – Julia Siedlanowska, Jess Amy Shead, Brandon Bate and Baraka Rahmani – play various hospital staff as well as Vivian’s students in flashbacks. Ms. Konrad has them appear with military precision as they whisk hospital equipment on and off stage.
Near the beginning of the show Vivian tells us “I think I die at the end of the play”, and as she transforms from cold taskmaster to vulnerable patient we can’t help but be moved by her plight.
Having seen Wit previously when it devastated me, I am not sure if it is my familiarity the material, but this time out this Pulitzer Prize winning play felt more like a really great Hallmark movie; it was moving, but not profound.
Regardless, it is a very tender story about a powerful and tragic woman, wrapped in a handsome production, with a luminous cast.
Wit by Margaret Edison. Directed by Angela Konrad. A Pacific Theatre production. On stage at Pacific Theatre (1440 W 12th Ave, Vancouver) until June 11. Visit http://pacifictheatre.org for tickets and information.