Death be not proud

'Wit' is worth the wait

For a play about cancer and mortality, there are many laugh lines in Margaret Edson's Wit, but one in the Alliance Studio production is unintentional. The central character of Dr. Vivian Bearing, a John Donne scholar and cancer patient, bids the audience, "Consider what it feels like to play my part." Given the trouble the theater faced in filling the role, one can't help but hear actress Nancy Linehan Charles behind the line.

The Alliance Studio had no understudy on hand when a bout of diverticulitus forced actress Susan Kellerman to bow out, mere days before preview performances were to begin. After a frantic search, Charles, who understudied the role at Los Angeles' Geffen Playhouse, was brought in with only a few weeks of preparation time.

There's a reason why Bearing is such a bear to cast, not the least of which is that she's onstage talking, almost continuously, for nearly two uninterrupted hours and must master the jargon of both cancer treatment and literary analysis (not to mention shave her head and appear briefly nude). But with the right person in the lead, Wit takes both player and audience on a funny, wrenching and profound journey, and fortunately Charles is a pistol in the part.

Wearing a hospital gown and a red baseball cap over her hairless pate, Bearing becomes something of an archetypal figure of a patient bravely facing the worst from both disease and its treatment. As she walks the audience through her life and the changes she's weathered, she's not so much an Ivy League lecturer as a feisty emcee, at least the way Charles plays her.

When her physician (Jim Peck) diagnoses her with advanced ovarian cancer, Bearing's academic instincts take over, and she fixates on the use of words like "insidious" that characterize the disease. "Is anyone researching cancer?" she wonders in one of the first of the play's knowing jokes. The star literary researcher becomes an object of research as she submits to an experimental treatment of grueling chemotherapy.

As the chemo takes a toll on her immune system, Bearing sees her emotional defenses break down as well. Self-sufficient and almost imperious, she takes considerable pride in her career, getting prestigious honors and terrorizing her students. In Wit, not only does she chafe at her role as a patient, dependent on a hubbub of health care professionals, but she also bristles at her place in the play itself, at times critiquing the stage directions.

Edson so cunningly and confidently constructs the Pulitzer-winning play, it's nearly flawless. Nevertheless, some of its events are rather convenient. Research fellow Jason Posner (Jim Roof) turns out to be a former student from her Donne class, while another character makes a surprise reappearance at Bearing's hospital bed near the end of the play. But Edson makes so much use of the small contrivances that she gets away with them. Wit would be less witty without them, and the reunion scene sets off sniffles through the audience.

The play is far from being a tearjerker, though. It's more of a reassessment of a life in the face of a death, with Bearing going through a variation of the Kubler-Ross stages of dying (anger, denial, etc.). Bearing grows to appreciate the human touch, personified by her nurse, Susie (Brenda Porter), over the intellectual acrobatics of metaphysical poetry. Though sometimes the play has complex, poetic language and goes on scholarly tangents (like a debate over the punctuation in Donne's "Death Be Not Proud" sonnet), the ideas behind the action are simple and accessible.

Wit is not a play without precedent, as other scripts have used disease to hoist forceful intellects on their own petards. Such characters as William Hurt's title role in The Doctor, Roy Cohn in Angels in America and particularly C.S. Lewis in Shadowlands undergo similar transformations as Bearing. Edson stands out by relying so little on deathbed sentiment: We feel and identify with all aspects of Bearing's decline, not just the ones that work the tear ducts.

Director Jessica Phelps keeps the supporting cast constantly moving and gets some especially nice moments from Porter, Peck and Marcie Hubert as Bearing's mentor (who will be replaced by Viola Harris after May 7). In one of the play's most compelling speeches, Jim Roof's Jason rhapsodizes on the mysteries of cancer as a disease - as a researcher, he says, "Cancer's the only thing I ever wanted." His bad bedside manner and anxiety at performing a pelvic exam are played broadly for laughs, but Jason ultimately emerges as a young version of Bearing herself, a would-be genius who's all too human.

Wit is only as good as its Bearing, and the Studio lucked out in Nancy Linehan Charles. While Bearing is stern and forbidding in scenes with students and young people, she's rather light and likable with the audience, punctuating the latest absurdity or indignity with a sideways glance to the crowd. She may push the humor further than required, but she finds the fear and sadness in the role, too, conveying the heartbreaking feelings most effectively in the moments with no dialogue at all.

In retrospect, two January productions involving women and disease, Shadowlands and Theatre in the Square's The Waiting Room, seem like preliminaries to Wit as the main event. After the Studio's engaging production, Edson's decision not to write any more seems especially regrettable - with such an auspicious debut, who knows how much further she could develop her talent? With Wit, Edson hit one out of the park her first time at bat, and by retiring, to mix metaphors, at least she avoids the problem of what to do for an encore.

"Wit" plays through June 11 at the Alliance Studio Theatre, Woodruff Arts Center, 1280 Peachtree St., with performances at 8 p.m. Tues.-Sat. and 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Sun. $21-$27. 404-733-5000.


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