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Theater Review:

"WIT" at Goodman Theatre


Professor Vivian Bearing emerges from behind a maze of white hospital curtains – a baseball cap covering her shaved head and a portable IV pole at her side -- in the unforgiving glare of the Goodman Theatre’s house lights. The very face of death bluntly yet absurdly invades the "safe" arena of a theater. And for nearly two intermissionless hours, this uncompromising scholar of John Donne’s metaphysical poetry must confront the physical breakdown of her cancer-stricken body through humor, humility and humanity.

Margaret Edson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning "Wit," receiving its Chicago premiere on the Goodman mainstage with local electrifying actress Carmen Roman in one of her most transformative roles, refuses to sentimentalize terminal illness. Instead the playwright gracefully juxtaposes the cold, detached nature of research with the healing power of human contact – ultimately carrying her fastidious protagonist to a kinetic energy plane even as her body wastes away.

"Wit" is the sort of play that takes audiences by surprise when they least expect it. One moment, Vivian wryly warns viewers that she has no intention of giving away the plot, "but I think I die at the end"; then she might be lying on a table being awkwardly examined (more accurately violated) by a new resident at a teaching hospital – and we can feel her dignity seep out of her in agonizing increments.

A university professor who has dedicated her life to deciphering the metaphoric literary puzzles of 17th century English poet-wit Donne at the expense of cultivating personal relationships, Vivian – diagnosed with ovarian cancer – finds the tables turned. She agrees to undergo ultra-aggressive experimental chemo treatments – thus "unwittingly" relegating herself to a specimen jar to be probed and analyzed. "Now I know how poems feel," she quips with an air of solemn remorse.

Donne structured his own poems about death in a clinical fashion, and scholars have vigorously debated the placement of his punctuation, like a comma – a slight breath between life and eternity. Vivian, too, becomes similarly dehumanized as medical students monitor the ratio of her intake (meals) and output (vomit) – her life and death separated by a decimal point, not a comma. Most unnerving, the professor no longer teaches; she is being taught.

The playwright, who based "Wit" on her own experiences working in a hospital oncology unit, was faced with a fairly daunting challenge: how do you capture the essence of dying without growing maudlin or TV-disease-movie-of-the-week sentimental? She succeeds through intensely crisp and rich dialogue that creates piquant musical textures. The multileveled humor pays tribute to Donne-style wit while reaching an emotional transcendence. What makes this play so crushing and unbearable is Vivian’s alone-ness.

Yet, while Edson has crafted a play and a main character of grand inner fortitude, she failed to give the doctors and nurses any dimensions. They are bungling non-entities. And although many people have encountered insensitive medical practitioners at some point in their lives, this play makes it seem as if the entire medical establishment is run by buffoons. In a sense, Edson’s one-joke treatment of the doctors (especially young research resident Jason Posner) is a device that mirrors Vivian’s approach to dissecting poetry. So the juxtaposition becomes metaphysical – especially evident when Dr. Posner gleefully describes metastasizing cancer cells.

That flaw aside, "Wit" is a truly eye-opening and gut-wrenching play. A challenge to watch, mainly for its unrelenting depiction of the horrors of cancer, it also exists in the realms of the mind and soul.

Director Steve Scott meticulously balances raw anguish with an almost beatific beauty. Carmen Roman, an artist of profound sensitivity, endows Vivian with a strength, vigor and vulnerability – never letting one aspect dominate the other. She portrays Vivian devoid of self-pity yet impressively unheroic. In the final brilliant moment, when Roman strips off her gown, she becomes both anonymous and the embodiment of humanity’s essence.

While the actors portraying the medical personnel try to temper the caricaturized way in which they were written, Courtney Shaughnessy is the most believable as Vivian’s warm-hearted but not-so-bright nurse. Susan Osborne-Mott turns in a grounded and matter-of-factly moving performance as Vivian’s mentor, Dr. E.M. Ashford.

Myung Hee Cho’s swirling hospital-curtain set (whose hooks resemble needles) allows the action to take place in icy reality and in the tundra-like recesses of Vivian’s sharp mind. The set is enhanced by Rita Pietraszek’s alternately stark and angelic lighting.

On a personal note, I left the theater torn up inside – sobbing uncontrollably all the way to the bus stop. But this sudden rush of tears -- provoked by Edson’s superb writing and Roman’s astonishing performance – hit me with a cathartic force that was truly life changing. •

"Wit" runs through June 16 at the Albert Ivar Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn. Tickets: $29-$45. Call 312-443-3800.

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