Career academic Vivian Bearing is an expert on the works of seventeenth-century poet and preacher John Donne. A fiery intellectual, she knows the depth of Donne's passion, the beauty of his wordplay, and, thanks to an exacting mentor, the hidden messages that are embedded in the punctuation of his Holy Sonnets. But when the leading character in Wit is diagnosed with a devastating disease, she learns that deciphering Donne's poetry isn't her only all-consuming challenge. "I have stage four metastatic ovarian cancer," Vivian says simply to the audience during one of the play's many asides. "There is no stage five."
Margaret Edson's Pulitzer-winning drama, currently at the Space Theatre, pulls few punches in its depiction of terminal illness and cure-obsessed physicians. With the house lights still up, the play begins as Vivian, dressed in a hospital gown and knit cap, trudges on stage wheeling a gauge that monitors her vital signs. "How are you feeling today?" she asks with mock concern, a bitter greeting that doesn't seem so off the wall once a series of flashbacks shows us that Vivian has been repeatedly bombarded with that question by people who don't seem to care about the answer.
Unburdened by pretense and exuding unflagging fortitude, performer Annette Helde spends the next ninety minutes providing Vivian's incisive responses -- some of them decidedly un-Donne-like -- to her doctors' endless rounds of questions. Masterfully guided by director Anthony Powell, Helde, who remains on stage for the entire play, delivers a moving, sometimes wrenching portrait that helps us to see Vivian as the proverbial island that's never very far from being connected to the mainland. She might be a forbidding scholar given to arcane philosophical discussion, but Helde reminds us that Vivian is, above all, someone we know and recognize -- a friend, a teacher, a loved one, a neighbor, a fellow commuter. It's a beautifully acted testament -- intentionally colored with layers of bitterness and humor, fury and tenderness, sarcasm and sincerity -- that ultimately gives flight to the human spirit. Such is her blend of technique and feeling that Helde's virtuoso turn also proves one of the finest efforts put forth by a Denver Center Theatre Company performer in recent memory.
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Space Theatre, Helen Bonfils Theatre Complex, 14th and Curtis
Through April 21, 303-893-4100
Helde is backed by a solid supporting cast, including an ensemble of National Theatre Conservatory students who consistently rise to the occasion whether they're moving furniture around the stage, impersonating a classroom of slackers or responding to a hospital emergency. They're complemented by a quartet of performers who portray various significant figures in Vivian's life. All are equally superb. John Innes plays Harvey Kelekian, the doctor who supervises Vivian's treatment but who's almost never present during any of its eight excruciating stages; Aaron Serotsky plays Jason Posner, Kelekian's ambitious assistant (and, coincidentally, one of Vivian's former students), who has the ability to become a great researcher if, as Vivian points out, he can only get past "the part with human beings"; Jane Welch plays E. M. Ashford, Vivian's mentor who, ironically enough, bids adieu to her protégé by quoting Shakespeare, whom Ashford always maintained was Donne's lesser; and Leslie O'Carroll plays Susie Monahan, a chipper nurse who is the only medical person in the play capable of comprehending that Vivian's standoffishness masks an acutely frightened soul.
As performed against designer Bill Curley's hospital-aqua/stippled-gray setting fretted with a canopy of five surgical lamps, Edson's play takes on a life of its own. Phrases rush by, exchanges sometimes go unresolved, fragments of Donne's poetry pique our thoughts and then, just as quickly, fade from memory. But none of these theatrical apparitions vanish without leaving their mark. Somehow, the rushing stream of words and images has a cumulative effect that's at once deeply personal and freely shared. Much as Donne expressed in his writings, Edson's play causes one to marvel at humankind's capacity for intellect while recognizing the importance of a spiritual center.