By Kelly Kleiman
Wit is deeply political in the best sense of the word. It is a shout for community, a bucket of acid in the face of irony. That’s a face we know all too well: the raised eyebrow, pursed lips, and rolling or glazed-over eyes. Wit is also a deeply religious play. Without diminishing the pain and terror of death–or of life, for that matter–it argues that everything we hide from and everything we fear will turn out to be the profile of another face, that of a merciful God.
Playwright Margaret Edson constructed Wit, her first play, with every tool in the ironist’s shed. Protagonist Vivian Bearing, a Donne scholar stricken with ovarian cancer, repeatedly steps outside the narrative to make snappy comments to the audience. Her monologues positively groan with literary references, as if to remind us that this is after all only a play, a text, “black marks on white paper.” The unity of time is completely abandoned as the days expand but the months contract. Yet the aim of all this postmodernism is the deconstruction of irony, a demonstration that wit–deliberately creating distance from the human condition–is an insufficient response to life’s gravest trials. More meaningful than wit, however “maudlin” or “corny,” is Vivian’s direct engagement with others: listening to her mentor read a story, sharing a Popsicle with her nurse. (Notwithstanding her 1999 Pulitzer, Edson is similarly immersed in her job teaching kindergartners, helping them learn the linguistic code that mediates so many of our connections.)
It would be easy to fall into the trap of representing Vivian’s experience as some sort of comeuppance: Single-Minded Scholar Learns Error of Her Ways, Yearns for Family. But neither Edson nor Goodman director Steve Scott takes that route. Instead they use the collapse of Vivian’s professional persona to show how “he that loseth his life shall find it.” Suffering impoverishes the old existence but creates a new one enriched by understanding.
And before all this earnestness makes you run screaming from the room, consider that Edson is frequently very funny. It takes great confidence to entitle a play Wit, but she lives up to the challenge by bringing humor to its grimmest proceedings. Not the humor of ironic distance but comedy tinged with an appreciation of the ridiculous, reminding us that laughter can be an elixir.
Wit rests heavily on the shoulders of its star: Vivian remains onstage for every one of the play’s 90-plus intermissionless minutes. Carmen Roman received a standing ovation, probably as much for her endurance as for her shaping of the character. Roman does fine work, particularly with the comic material. (“Are you having sexual relations?” asks the doctor. “Not at the moment,” she replies, brilliantly encompassing in her tone everything about “the moment”: the hospital, her gown, her baldness, even his presence.) Her performance suffers only by comparison to that of Kathleen Chalfant, who starred in the off-Broadway production, and Emma Thompson, who re-created the role on HBO–which is kind of like saying that Teddy Roosevelt really doesn’t measure up to Lincoln.
Roman’s interpretation–variously crotchety, aggravated, and enraged–is less to my taste than Chalfant’s disdainful self-possession. Anger is certainly appropriate to end-stage cancer, but it seems more suited to a scholar of Dylan Thomas (“Rage, rage against the dying of the light”) than of Donne. Like the moderator on The Weakest Link, Vivian pretends to be blunt but is really rude, making it a struggle for the audience to warm up to her. But Roman proves the validity of her interpretation early on: struggling with nausea, she shouts, “Oh, God, what’s left?”–and the quality of her voice then, so different in its raw terror from the brittle voice she’s been using, makes Vivian irrevocably real and human; matters of liking or disliking become irrelevant.
In any case, it’s unlikely the audience will find Vivian any more repellent than her fellow characters do. Scott enhances this sense of common experience between the watchers and the watched by having designer Rita Pietraszak light the house nearly as often as the stage. This serves to make the audience complicit in the doctors’ unfeeling arrogance but also empathic with Vivian’s pain. Again that call for community: the gulf between audience and actors, like the gulf between life and death, seems unbridgeable but isn’t. It’s not a semicolon, only a comma.
The weaknesses of this Goodman Theatre production lie not in conception but in execution. Chief among these is pace: the play is supposed to run 90 minutes but lasts an extra 15 or 20. Performance is not a race, but the audience’s widespread coughing suggested lagging attention. Scott seems to have become so preoccupied with the excruciating slowness of Vivian’s treatment that he’s forgotten the terrifying rush of her final days. It should be possible to show how time hangs heavy on the hands of a cancer patient without it hanging heavy on the hands of the audience. Myung Hee Cho’s scenic design of hospital curtains snatched back and forth is intended to create precisely that sense of haste–which it will, if they’re snatched quickly enough.
Nor does the supporting cast measure up to Roman. Chris Kipiniak is suitably oafish as Jason, the doctor whose obtuseness makes Vivian’s experience doubly painful. But Kipiniak gives him no other dimension: when Jason acknowledges a mistake near the end of the play, we simply don’t believe that he’s changed. As Vivian’s mentor, Susan Osborne-Mott is neither stern nor gentle enough to convey how rigor can coexist with tenderness. Donald Brearley’s Dr. Kelekian barely registers, though he’s designed as a distorted reflection of Vivian, and Courtney Shaughnessy plays the pivotal role of the nurse with naivete instead of the necessary street smarts.
In the play’s last moment Vivian sheds her hospital gown, suggesting that in death she’s shed her body and gone free. It was a powerful image in the New York production, but the way it’s lit here makes the moment seem sensational and intrusive. An actress who’s shaved her head shouldn’t also have to disrobe under a spotlight to show that death has nothing to be proud of. If she just walked off while the doctors continued to fuss at her bedside, the point would be thoroughly made.
Nonetheless, everyone should see Wit. As Donne said in one of his rare serious moments, “Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.” Edson forcibly reminds us what constitutes being involved in mankind: genuineness, connection, engagement, and–as Vivian says–“Dare I say it? Kindness.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Eric Y. Exit.