Death Be Not Dull
In 1615 John Donne did something that changed the course of his life, and four hundred years later, the life of Vivian Bearing Ph.D.: He became an Anglican priest. Donne dedicated his life to writing religious prose and poetry. As a priest and poet he explored the barriers of mortality and immortality. As a professor of seventeenth-century English literature, Bearing dedicates her life to the critical study of Donne's work until her life halts irrevocably when she discovers she is in the final stage of metastatic ovarian cancer. Professor Bearing's eight-month journey through "treatment" forms the premise of Wit, now at the Parker Playhouse in Fort Lauderdale.
It becomes obvious that playwright Margaret Edson's choice of John Donne, a metaphysical poet and a master of framing philosophical dialectic into verse, is not an arbitrary one. Donne's poetry is the perfect metaphor for Bearing's own struggle to understand and accept her mortality. The incorporation of Donne's poetry and the concept of wit as it was understood in its time, transform the play from what would normally be considered a drama to a heightened philosophical journey. (For example the word wit occurs at least 46 times and has at least 6 distinct meanings in eighteenth-century poet and critic Alexander Pope's Essay on Criticism. Among the meanings: invention, imagination, judgment, intuition, ingenuity.... In other words far more complex than simply being told you are "witty" at a cocktail party.)
As a successful university professor, Vivian Bearing's philosophical quandaries have taken place in the pages of textbooks and the long corridors of academia. But as the play opens, she faces the audience with two thin nightgowns draped over her bony form and a bright red baseball cap over her almost completely bald head. She declares: "Now I know what it feels like to be a poem." Bearing (played by Judith Light) has agreed to eight months of aggressive and experimental treatment headed up by two researchers: doctors Harvey Kelekian (Brian Smiar) and Jason Posner (Daniel Sarnelli), who also is a former student of Bearing.
Wit's use of poetry as a dramatic tool is refreshing. It's no accident that poetry and drama are shelved side by side at the local coffee-guzzling barns we now call bookstores. When Bearing recites one of Donne's holy sonnets, she is not having a "poetic moment"; she is struggling to find meaning in her own impending mortality: "Death be not proud, though some have called thee/Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;/For those whom thou think'st thou dost overthrow/Die not poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me."
Bearing grapples with the dichotomy of medicine versus the body's natural processes; intellectual, abstract knowledge versus life experience.
Light, best known for her role on the TV sitcom Who's the Boss?, has an extensive theater background and it shows in her adherence to her character's fundamental personality traits. As Bearing moves closer to her own mortality, she realizes the things that have guided her entire life -- her intellect, perfectionism, and discipline -- no longer work. But she does not exchange these qualities for more attractive ones either. One of the most compelling aspects of the play is that no one is radically changed. The nurse Susie Monahan (played by Lisa Tharps) does not become an intellectual, Dr. Posner does not become a faith healer, and Vivian Bearing does not become a poet, wife, or mother. Nor should she. Light's in-depth understanding of her character and Leah Gardiner's smart direction prevent Wit from becoming a cautionary tale of women who sacrifice their personal lives to have successful careers and doctors who will hungrily grab a clipboard of statistics, forgetting even to greet the patient.
This makes Bearing's relationship with nurse Monahan much more believable and moving. Tharps's superb portrayal of Monahan creates a much-needed emotional equilibrium between the cerebral and insular personalities of Bearing and Dr. Posner -- a tremendous contribution to the overall quality of the performance. Transformation is the difference between skillful character development and false resolutions. The characters never become something they were not from the moment the curtains open; therefore we believe in the Popsicle scene, where Monahan and Bearing suck Popsicles and Bearing has the experience of just having an experience, something rare and surprisingly meaningful for her.
People who are isolated and die alone because they have so dedicated themselves to work and success is commonplace; doctors who become so obsessed with their research it takes them five minutes to notice the patient has no vital signs are not groundbreaking characters. What is interesting and valuable about Wit is how the common themes of isolation and connection and of life and death are explored through the tenacious character of Bearing and the enigmatic figure of John Donne.
In an intriguing dialogue between Posner and Monahan, the doctor expounds passionately on his fascination, obsession even, with cancer, with the insolubility and resilience of the disease. When asked where all his exhaustive research and work has led him, he answers: nowhere. This represents one of the many parallels between the professor and her doctor and supports one of the central themes of the play: the futility of science and art as cure-alls against the force of life. As Bearing observes, "You, doctor, like the senior scholar, prefer research to the human being."
Wit is the humor that emanates from the tragedy of the dramatic situation in lines like, "I used to be the one who did all the talking, now I'm the poem. It's much easier; I just sit here and look cancerous." Or the repetition of the superficial inquiry, "How are you today?" which transforms itself from cruel, to inane, to consoling throughout the play. Wit also is the common bond between Posner and his patient, as both of their promising worlds reveal themselves to be flawed. Pope, a great admirer of Donne, seemed to prophesy the panacea man would make of medicine when he wrote: "One Science will only one Genius fit;/So vast is Art, so narrow Human Wit." Three hundred years later Bearing echoes, "What we have come to think of as me is just the specimen jar."
It is no accident that the last "poetry" read to her is from a children's story, read to her by her former teacher E.M. Ashford (played by Diane Kagan). It's a small role in content but huge in the same sense that Susie Monahan is, in balancing the extreme roles of Bearing and Posner.
The play succeeds through shifts in dramatic perspective. From the beginning Bearing takes moments to "confide" in or inform the audience. Sometimes she refers to a crucial moment in her past: "Now through a series of flashbacks, you will see how the professor denied her students what she now seeks." This confiding in the audience creates an empathy between audience and character without breaking down the necessary barrier of the character's persona in this case, someone largely incapable of intimacy -- another smart decision from director Gardiner, as it creates a seesaw effect between the audience and the protagonist. At one turn we are reliving a crucial moment with her, filling in a missing piece of the puzzle of her character. Next we are intellectually distanced by the analytical aspect of flashbacks.
A well-performed dramatic piece entertains. A well-written one stays with the audience, using language to build a connection between the audience and complex abstract concepts. Wit is such a play. The dramatic note at the end could be interpreted as melodramatic, but without giving it away, it's definitely a surprise and worth experiencing, as is the play as a whole.
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