Facing death with 'Wit'

Perseverance opens season Friday with play focusing on cancer

Posted: Thursday, September 21, 2000

Four-hundred-year-old poetry and 21st-century medical issues come together in "Wit."

"No man is an island," wrote the English poet John Donne at the dawn of the 17th century. Donne's ideas and writings blend with the timeless theme of a person coming to terms with his or her own life and death in "Wit."

The 1999 Pulitzer Prize-winning play begins the new theater season at 8 p.m. Friday at Perseverance Theatre.

Donne, a contemporary of William Shakespeare, also wrote the poem "Death Be Not Proud." One of England's most prominent Anglican ministers, his sermons and writings were recorded, and influenced writers such as T.S. Eliot.

They were also a profound influence on Margaret Edson, who wrote "Wit." The main character in the play is Vivian Bearing, an academic scholar who specializes in the writings of Donne. Bearing has discovered she has late-stage ovarian cancer. The play is set in a hospital, but jumps to various scenes in Bearing's life.

Actress and director Anita Maynard-Losh plays Bearing.

"She's a character that's always been in control of her life. She's demanding and uncompromising, and her wit and intellect were what her life was about. When she gets cancer, she's thrust in a situation where she's not in control," she said. "She discovers that prizing only intellect doesn't always serve your needs when you're in a life threatening situation."

Maynard-Losh is on stage for the entire one hour and 40 minutes of the play. She addresses the audience directly, and her monologues are illustrated by flashbacks involving other characters.

Maynard-Losh found the role demanding because of the emotional range required and the incredible amount of precisely written, eruditic dialogue. She called "Wit" a very language-oriented play.

She also shaved her head for the part, which elicited surprising reactions from strangers, she said.

"People avert their eyes. It's interesting to have that experience as an actor since that's something people who have chemo have to deal with," she said.

The entire cast explored the realities of chemotherapy and cancer treatment. Director Terry Cramer brought in a hospice worker and an oncology nurse to talk to the cast, and they took a trip to Bartlett Regional Hospital.

"We went to see the X-ray lab, the CAT scan lab, imaging devices and they showed us how to defibrillate a patient," Cramer said. "There was no room for reserve in this play, it was grab on and jump in."

Cramer began work on the play in April, just weeks after her own father died. Working on the play was a very healing way to explore that experience, she said.

She said she has been particularly impressed with the commitment Maynard-Losh made to the role.

"She's given deep and detailed thought to every moment," she said. "She strikes a wonderful balance between humor and discovery and exploration of something that faces us all, one way or another."

"Wit," opens at 8 p.m. Friday, with a pay-as-you-can preview at 7:30 tonight. Regular shows will be 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, 8 p.m Fridays and Saturdays and 6 p.m. Sundays through Oct. 15. There will be a pay-as-you-can performance Wednesday, Oct. 4. Tickets range from $17 to $22 for adults, and from $13 to $18 for students and seniors, with the lower prices on the Thursday and Sunday shows.

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