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Washington Post

Wit

Reviewed by Post critic Lloyd Rose
March 3, 2000

"Most things never happen," wrote the poet Philip Larkin. "This one will." He was talking about death, and his grim observation accounts for the power of Margaret Edson's Pulitzer Prize-winning "Wit," which opened last night at the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater. It will happen to us all and the odds are strong that it will happen as it happens to Edson's heroine: incurable cancer, treatment worse than the disease, a callous medical establishment, dehumanization, humiliation and terrible pain.

Having been diagnosed with Stage 4 ovarian cancer ("There is no Stage 5," she notes dryly), Vivian Bearing, PhD (Judith Light), agrees to serve as a subject for advanced chemotherapy research. The program is run by a vast unnamed medical center with a strong resemblance to the National Institutes of Health, where Edson once worked, and Bearing is continually doused with the cold water of her physicians' indifference to her as a person. Late in the play, having astonishingly survived eight months of intense experimental chemo, she muses that she will be famous in the papers her doctors write – then realizes that, in fact, only her ovaries will be famous.

Dr. Bearing is an expert in the 17th-century metaphysical poetry of John Donne. A devout Christian with a strong skeptical bent, Donne wavered between faith in God and doubts about his own spiritual worthiness, between hope of redemption and terror of damnation. The wavering itself became his defense against the fear of death. Similarly, Bearing tries to use Donne's wrestlings with mortality and salvation – particularly in his so-called "Holy Sonnets" – as a shield against her ordeal.

It's against our modern prejudices, however, for a character to triumph through the intellect. That would be somehow . . . repressed. So Bearing cannot find transcendence until she learns to feel – until she looks back at her students and decides she was as callous with them as her doctors are with her (the audience may disagree), until she longs for kindness and comes to understand that there is as much wisdom in the children's story "The Runaway Bunny" as there is in the brilliance of Donne.

This gooey ending seems unworthy of Edson's heroine, a tough, salty woman who as the play opens informs us curtly, "It is not my intention to give away the plot, but I think I die at the end." For those in the audience who find Dr. Bearing's tough-mindedness heroic, her capitulation to what she herself describes as the "maudlin" and the "corny" is a disappointment and a defeat.

In the first part of the play (which runs only 90 minutes, without an intermission), Light acts on one unvarying note of steely resolve. There's no nuance in her performance, or in Bearing's personality. She's much stronger later, when Bearing is pitifully collapsing into physical helplessness and emotional nakedness. The rest of the actors play their roles strongly but shallowly, making the most obvious choices and staying on the surface of their characters.

Leah C. Gardiner's direction, based on the original direction by the late Derek Anson Jones, is visually spare and efficient, with flimsy hospital curtains zipping back and forth on chrome rods to change and define scenes. But set designer Myung Hee Cho has emphasized the diaphanous lightness of those curtains, which float when they move as if stirred by a breeze, some fresh air blown in from the living world outside the hospital. Michael Chybowski lights those curtains in stark white or clinical green. Still, for all its association with hospital corridors, that green can't help reminding us of spring and rebirth.

Edson's frankness about the clinical awfulness of modern death is what makes "Wit" such a strong theater experience. But if that were all there was to the play, no one could bear to go see it, and it probably wouldn't have won a Pulitzer. Unflinching in its surface details, "Wit" still has the usual soft center: Dr. Bearing learns through suffering to be a better – i.e., "more feeling" – person. No one ever dies meaninglessly on the popular American stage.

"Wit," by Margaret Edson. Directed by Leah C. Gardiner, based on the original direction by Derek Anson Jones. Costumes, Ilona Somogyi; original music and sound, David Van Tieghem; tour sound, Jill B.C. Du Boff; wigs, Paul Huntley. With Diane Kagan, Daniel Sarnelli, Brian Smiar, Lisa Tharps, Hope Albrecht, Malcolm Barrett, Laura Jean Kirk and Christopher Swift. At the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater through March 26. Call 202/467-4600.