W;t at Theatre in the Round is an Emotional Rollercoaster

Joy Donley Photo by B. Russell Photo

Hypnic Jerk Theatre and Theatre in the Round Players (TRP) co-production of the Pulitzer Prize winning play Wit by Margaret Edson. Wit is a wonderfully layered drama that contains a surprising amount of humor for a play about a woman dying of cancer. TRP has become the theatre that can do no wrong this season and Wit continues that streak. A one act play that runs without intermission featuring a powerhouse performance by Joy Donley who, if memory serves, doesn’t get a moment offstage in the nearly two hour runtime.

Telling the story of Dr. Vivian Bearing, a professor of 17th century poetry whose expertise is in the metaphysical poetry of John Donne, is diagnosed with stage IV metastatic ovarian cancer. Bearing begins the play by addressing the audience directly, breaking the fourth wall or since this is Theatre in the Round, breaking walls one through four. The character will transition fluidly throughout the play from being in a scene to addressing us directly. Bearing knows she’s in a play but that distance doesn’t shield her from the ravages of cancer. We the audience know we’re watching a play but that doesn’t shield us from investing our emotions completely. Bearing introduces herself and explains that the next two hours will tell her story from diagnosis to death. She then steps directly into her office visit with Dr. Kelekian who explains her cancer to her and offers an experimental treatment that will consist on eight rounds of full dose Chemotherapy. We will follow Bearing through her treatments and into the past, as flashbacks to a childhood conversation with her father, a conversation as a student with her mentor, and interactions with her own students. All of which inform the person she has become while allowing her to reflect on her life and behavior. Not content to simply tell Bearings story, Edson fleshes out her play with the doctors and nurses whose behaviors allow her to draw parallels and contrasts with Bearing. The single minded research driven Dr. Jason Posen, a former student, is a reflection of her own intelligence but also her emotional distance. The nurse, Susie, is a reminder that there are more ways to measure intelligence than academics, there is an emotional intelligence that is also vital to the human condition.

Vivian Bearing must be one of those roles that actors dream of getting the chance to tackle. She’s a fascinating character, fiercely intelligent but also flawed, a woman who has sublimated her emotional life to that of her life’s work, only to arrive at the end alone and scared. Joy Donley turns in a masterful performance effortlessly projecting the intelligence of Bearing. Throughout the play she discusses Donne’s poems and other aspects of literature and academia. I could barely follow any of it but Donely seemed ready to conduct a lecture on the topic. What Donely does to imbue her character with all of the expertise and at times, arrogance that comes from being the expert. That intelligence isn’t just present in the scholarly moments, it’s present in every side to the audience, in her self reflection, and in her interactions with the other performers. The humor, of which there is a surprising amount, is so effective because it is backed by and flows from that intelligence, we believe her wit. And that is only one aspect of her performance. She spends the entire play deteriorating from cancer, and it’s heartbreaking to see this fortress of thought and perseverance becoming muddled and weak. It’s astonishing, given the fact that she addresses us directly by clearly acknowledging that she is a performer and we are an audience, how authentic every moment of her performance feels.

Donley is the reason to see this show, that and the Pulitzer Prize winning script of course. But, I have to say her supporting cast from the four larger supporting roles to the four actors playing the Lab Techs, Students, Residents are really strong. Those ensemble players are Alex Church, Luke Peterson, Ben Qualley, and Kelly Solberg. They wonderfully capture things as tiny as the indifference of the person who wheels you from your hospital bed to the room they’ll be giving you chemo in. Brian P. Joyce is wonderful as both Dr. Kelekian and Vivian’s father in a flashback. Meri Golden plays Vivian’s mentor E.M. Ashford both as a flashback and in a visit to her hospital room towards the end. Golden understands that Ashford is a variant of the type of person Vivian Bearing. In the flashback she is much as Bearing herself is with her own students, as an older woman, she is what Vivian might have been if she had married and lived longer. In the hospital room, she knows to play her as unsure of how to comfort Vivian, but as someone who has learned how to try. She climbs into bed with Vivian and reads to her, uncertainty is there but also compassion. Dominic DeLong-Rodgers is Dr. Posner and Gillian Constable is the nurse Susie, they are both fantastic, it’s too simplistic to say they are representations of intellect and emotions, the performances are more nuanced than that. I’d happily follow those two characters as played by DeLong-Rodgers and Constable through to another play.

Wit is directed by Kari Steinbach who clearly knows how to stage a show in the round. At times it feels like an episode of E.R., the characters whisking around the hospital. Steinbach’s blocking of the piece adds a frenetic energy at times and at others she slows everything down to let a moment land and sink in. It’s always fluid, flowing at just the right pace from scene to scene form the present to the past. I don’t usually comment on the stage management, but in this case I want to acknowledge the work of Katie Sondrol who makes that fluidity possible by the efficient removal and placement of various set pieces in a show that never stops moving forward. Kudos to Set and Costume Designer Robert L. Graff, Lighting and Sound Designer Shannon Elliot, and Prop Designer Andrew Blake Stam for making this production look and sound amazing.

Wit runs for one more weekend through May 27th at Theatre in the Round Players, for more information and to purchase tickets go to https://www.theatreintheround.org/home/season-placeholder/special-events/

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