Theater Review

Perseverance's 'Wit' is a wonder on stage

Posted: Thursday, September 28, 2000

"Wit," at one level, is a juxtaposition between the medical and academic worlds, complete with their world views, foibles and jargon. The heroine is a professor whose area of expertise is John Donne the most convoluted, esoteric poet ever to tax an undergraduate brain. Vivian Bearing, Ph.D. (Anita Maynard-Losh) is an uncompromising, prickly academic who is dying of ovarian cancer.

I imagine this would be a rather tough pitch to make in Hollywood, which graphically illustrates the difference between stage and screen between the tired diet of sequel retreads, re-releases and shoot-em-ups that make up the empty calories of summer blockbusters, and the best that American theater has to offer.

The controlling and overbearing Dr. Bearing is in a position she hasn't prepared for. No one prepares for the humiliation, isolation and pain of a terminal disease. She also must suffer the irony of her body being scrutinized as a text, (a very postmodern conceit) the plot of which is the progression of her disease and not her accomplishments as a scholar. Her microscopic obsession with punctuation is reflected in the attention to detail Dr. Posner pays to her cancer, while completely ignoring her as a human being. Dr. Bearing hides from the horror of cancer, and the indignity of impersonal health care, behind the shield of her wit as well as she can, but in the end she only longs for a simple human touch.

This sounds terribly depressing, so perhaps I should add that it is also the wittiest play since "Rosencrantz and Guilderstern are Dead" (1966).

Eddie Jones' late nights studying medicine are paying off unexpected dividends. His portrayal of Dr. Harvey Kelekian is clinically precise. Zach Falcon as Dr. Posner captures the unintentional humor of his role as foil extremely well. And it is difficult to believe that M.K. McNaughton is not a nurse in real life. But as great as the supporting roles are, Anita Maynard-Losh as the lead is even better.

Terry Cramer's main stage directorial debut is without flaw. The soundtrack is solo piano passages (Satie, Bartok) that link the scenes and subtly reinforce the theme that death is a monologue. The stage a cross between an arc of the coliseum and outsized kitchen cabinets is functional as hospital, classroom and theater. This leaves a critic with rather little to say, other than 'Come, see how theater should be done.' My only hope is that this level of excellence can't possibly be maintained, and I'll be able to go back to my more familiar territory of being crotchety later in the season.

Your one final option is the grace with which you meet defeat. That will be the final test: Are you capable of such grace or not? This is Michael Ventura's summary of Hemingway's perennial obsession, but it could apply equally well to Edson's "Wit." I advise you to not miss this show.

As a former scholar and present worker in health care, Michael Christenson can attest that "Wit" skewers both professions with deadly, hilarious precision.

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