Unflinching

Nomad Theatre's Wit illuminates the dying process.

I have been hugely resistant to Margaret Edson's Pulitzer-winning play, Wit. I sat dry-eyed during the last moments of the Denver Center production last year as sniffling, Kleenex fumbling and stifled sobs broke out all around me. I was mildly seduced by the recent HBO version starring Emma Thompson, but not nearly as moved as I should have been by the depiction of an agonizingly drawn-out death by one of the foremost actors of our time. So I was inclined to give the Nomad version a miss. If the divine Emma hadn't converted me, I reasoned, no one and nothing could.

The Nomad production didn't make me cry, though it certainly had that effect on almost everyone else in the audience. But it did create a connection to a deep and ancient sea of inner sadness. Does this mean that Billie McBride's performance as the dying Vivian Bearing was more effective than Annette Helde's fiercely intelligent rendition in Denver? Did the immediacy of live theater trump the HBO version? Had Nomad director Terry Todd coaxed emotional nuances from Wit that I hadn't found there before? Was my response simply the result of hearing the script for the third time, just as music increases its hold on us through repetition? I have had cancer, though my treatments were nowhere near as draconian as those inflicted on Vivian Bearing. I have spent many hours at the bedsides of dying people. Perhaps it was emotional numbness that prevented my responding to Wit in the past, and with this viewing, the numbness had worn off. Whatever the reason, I felt a grace and truth in the Nomad production that I hadn't previously sensed in this play.

The central premise of Witis simple. Vivian Bearing, an eminent English professor specializing in the metaphysical poetry of John Donne, receives a terminal diagnosis. It's only natural, given her own passion for research, that she should enter a research hospital and agree to participate in an experimental protocol that, while unlikely to do much more than temporarily shrink her tumor, will -- doctors hope -- advance the search for a cure. Bearing's passions are abstract. She has been a cold and unsympathetic teacher. Now she's in a teaching facility where, to the doctors and interns, she herself is only an object. She fights for sanity in the only way she knows how: by attempting to master the vocabulary of the cancer world.

Suzanne Fountain nurses Billie McBride in Wit.
Suzanne Fountain nurses Billie McBride in Wit.

The script brings us face-to-face with the dying process. It doesn't turn away from invasive procedures, the humiliating failures of the body, the nausea or the pain. For a while, audience distress at these things is mitigated by the fact that Bearing recovers herself sufficiently after every ugly episode to address us directly, contextualizing what has happened, deploying her own formidable wit, even evoking laughter. But as the play, and the cancer, progresses, her coping mechanisms falter. Eventually, even language deserts her. And it's here, in the midst of intense suffering and solitude, that she comes to understand a central truth: Nothing in this world matters more than simple kindness.

Which isn't to say that Wit doesn't give full weight to the pleasures of the intellect. It's full of hilarious one-liners, literary analysis and attempts to fathom paradox. Bearing's mentor, E.M. Ashford, is a professor as forbidding as her protegé. In a flashback, Ashford mocks the passionate emotionalism of Shakespeare in comparison to the remoter pleasures of Donne. Nonetheless, at the moment of Bearing's death, only Shakespeare has the necessary words: "Flights of angels sing thee to thy rest," Ashford whispers.

Billie McBride's performance as Bearing is a marvel of generosity. She's willing to give herself to the part completely, to be grotesque, cold and unlikable at the beginning and to fully inhabit Bearing's suffering later. All of the supporting performances are also good. Susan D'Autremont plays E.M. Ashford; it's a great pleasure to watch her on stage again and to see how strongly and beautifully she's matured as an actress. Oncology nurses are a breed apart: Many cancer patients feel they could never have borne the ravages of the disease without their nurses, and Witfunctions in part as a tribute to these women. (In her program note, McBride, too, thanks the medical personnel who work with cancer patients.) Nurse Susie Monahan is a central character, and Suzanne L. Fountain fills the role unpretentiously and well. Dan Mundell, as Dr. Harvey Kelekian, seemed a little unsure during the evening's first moments but came into his own later -- particularly as the five-year-old Bearing's father in the charming scene where, reading Beatrix Potter, Vivian discovers her lifelong love for words. I liked Kent Burnham as Jason Posner, the young intern who was once Bearing's student and who is as blindly devoted to his research as she has been to hers. My complaints here have to do with the script, not the performance. I found it hard to believe that Posner would howl with grief and guilt at Bearing's botched death, then fall to his knees. Though there are hints of dawning understanding in his scenes with the nurse, and with Bearing herself, they didn't strike me as sufficient for a conversion this melodramatic.

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