Pacific Theatre presents Margaret Edson’s Wit. Photo by Emily Cooper.
Pacific Theatre presents Margaret Edson’s Wit. Photo by Emily Cooper.

The subject matter of Wit may come across as stark: cancer research and treatment, juxtaposed against an academic examination of the poetry of John Donne. The worlds of academia and medical research are known to be harsh and hierarchical, and yet, Margaret Edson’s one and only play, Wit, is not known for either of those things.

“I actually think the play is very funny,” says director Angela Konrad. “Like my favourite art, Wit walks the razor-thin line between the beauty and horror of life, that exquisite balance of humour and pathos at the core of most human stories.”

“It’s very generous to both the actors and the audience, because they’re having to go through a fairly intense journey, but it gives us time to feel things and to laugh,” says Julie Casselman, who is making her professional debut in the role of Susie, Vivian’s nurse.

Centering on Vivian Bearing, a professor of English Literature who specializes in John Donne’s Holy Sonnets whose world abruptly changes with a cancer diagnosis, Wit transforms her exploration of death from the academic to the physical.

While the story has at times been seen as a criticism of the medical and academic fields’ devotion to intellect at the cost of humanity, Konrad doesn’t see it that way.

“The reason the play has such a resonance for so many people is partly because these are people who seek to do good in their work.  Certainly, researching cancer treatments and educating students about great literature are noble professions,” she says. “In fact, the nobility of the work is the trap: it’s easy to put aside the people around you when you are in pursuit of some greater good.”

For Casselman, playing a nurse in her professional debut is more than just another role.

“My mom was a nurse and definitely wanted me to grow up to be a nurse too,” she says with a laugh, “but, being a person who passed out regularly in bio class killed that dream.  My parents have been very supportive of my artistic career, but it’s pretty funny that I’ll be making my actual professional debut playing a nurse.”

Wit play Pacific Theatre (1440 W 12th Ave, Vancouver) from May 20 – June 11. Visit http://pacifictheatre.org for tickets and information.