SOME PLAYS ARE born great. Some, thanks to careful cultivation and not too much workshopping, achieve greatness. But increasingly, the plays presented at our larger regional houses like Intiman, ACT, and the Seattle Rep have all too clearly had "greatness" thrust upon them. In a good season, these houses will only have one or two absolute stinkers, such as an overly earnest social drama with a pat resolution or a lurching comedy devoid of laughs. In a bad season, they'll have four or five. It begins to make one believe that such is the condition of American theatrical writing—that the "best and brightest" writers have abandoned drama altogether for more elevated milieus.
Seattle Repertory Theater till November 20
Then you see a play like Wit.
The frustrating thing about this superb play, which walked off with this year's Pulitzer Prize for drama, is that it makes it look so easy. It's almost too perfect that Margaret Edson, the playwright and first-time author, is a full-time kindergarten teacher who has no intention of quitting her job and no plans to write another play. "Oh, that old thing," one imagines her saying. "I tossed it off between fingerpainting and duty as a playground monitor." (Actually, she wrote it just prior to her master's degree, based on her experiences at an oncology/AIDS unit, but it's still a galling thought.)
Maybe there were a few things I should have paid more attention to back in kindergarten.
Little in Edson's dramatic technique or subject matter is innovative. Piles of scripts throughout the land feature protagonists who speak directly to the audience with witty self-references, and terminal illness has been jerking tears since before the days of Camille. In fact, Wit is surprisingly old-fashioned in structure and approach, though its theatricality is relaxed and sure-handed.
What is rare and fine about Wit is that it treats its viewers as complex beings who can manage such extraordinary tasks as appreciating irony, following sophisticated intellectual arguments about poetry or science, and even (mon dieu!) laughing and being moved at the same time.
The story, as our protagonist Dr. Vivian Bearing (Megan Cole) insists, is a simple one. She is an English professor who is a renowned authority on the works of John Donne, particularly the "Holy Sonnets." And she's dying of ovarian cancer. Avoiding both sentimentality and trivializing "self-help" approaches , Bearing pursues an understanding of her condition as determinedly as she's applied herself to the intellectual rigors of the great English poet. "Donne's wit is . . . a way to see how good you really are," she says early on. "After 20 years, I can say with confidence, no one is quite as good as I."
Her towering self-confidence and refusal to submit to the sort of passive probing expected of terminally ill patients make her a difficult charge, but the young doctor looking after her case, Jason Posner (Brian Drillinger, good but a little over-mannered), scarcely notices. A former student of Bearing's, he's as detached from people as she's always been and has to be continually reminded by his mentor Dr. Kelekian (Peter Silbert, intelligent and effective as always) to at least acknowledge that his patients are more than the sum of their medical conditions.
IN CONTRAST TO BOTH Posner and Bearing is Susie (Liz McCarthy), the uneducated but kind nurse who unself-consciously shows her patient compassion—talking with her, looking after her needs, even sharing a Popsicle with her in a moment of distress. We begin to see that Bearing's journey is from the assumed and arrogant power of the intellect to a mute but deep appreciation of kindness and the bounty of the human heart.
Martin Berson, who directed the premiere production of the play at South Coast Repertory back in 1995, is here reunited with his lead actress in a show that infuses a sharp intellect with a sincere compassion. Cole is transcendent in the role that she originated, a performance that combines her extraordinary presence with an almost painful emotional honesty, and in the main the rest of the cast rises to her high standard. In a particularly sublime piece of casting, Seattle actress Jean Burch, long absent from the stage, brings a remarkable combination of warmth and nobility to the role of Bearing's professorial mentor. While visiting her former student, she interrupts her conversation to cuddle with her in her hospital bed and read to her the classic children's story The Runaway Bunny. "Look at that," she says, wonderingly, as the mother in the tale affirms to her child that she will follow him if he runs away. "A little allegory of the soul." The wry comedy of the moment defeats the deepest cynicism, and like Bearing herself, we are allowed a moment of unsentimental insight into the unknowable nature of death and the surpassing power of kindness.