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Home of the Brave: “Wit” Pits Poetry Against Cancer

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Mention people and cancer and the adjective “brave” pops up immediately. And in “Wit,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning first play from Margaret Edson, much bravery-of the theatrical kind-is on display. The playwright has decided to focus on a woman dying of cancer, spending the play in a medical center, allowing few supporting characters other than doctors, nurses, and interns. The actor (Allison Coutts-Jordan) portraying the woman Vivian Bearing, a professor in English specializing in John Donne, must achieve a delicate balance between dignity and debasement, between harshness and sentimentality. And because this terminal illness attacks such a stern taskmaster without, as we soon learn, a husband, children, friends, or loving students, the temptation for Edson to use the illness as a sort of punishment-repent, Ebenezer Scrooge!-must be resisted.

This performance, to run until Nov. 8 at SBCC’s Garvin Theater, pulls all the above off perfectly. Director Rick Mokler certainly took a chance with the play, with its many grim scenes likely to repel a number of people. Mr. Mokler also has invested in a play that relegates much of its time to a hospital bed set back in the stage. Fortunately, Ms. Coutts-Jordan handles everything with confidence-she is called on to carry the play and does so because there is no room in the character’s world for anybody else. She relishes the part and the audience is with her all the way.

Ms. Edson brings us two Vivian Bearings: one who stands outside the action (she tells us at the beginning that she’ll be dead in 90 minutes) and one who struggles within it. The latter elicits our sympathy, the former tells us she doesn’t want it. It’s the Lifetime Network with a dose of Brecht.
(Whether it’s dictated by the script or on Mr. Mokler’s whim, the play is occasionally beset by the turgid Tinkling Piano of Terminal Illness, the evening’s one false note–David Potter composed that note, and the ones that follow them. It feels manipulative and signifies nothing except what years of watching daytime television have taught us to expect.)

Vivian is tended by a kind nurse and diagnosed by cold doctors: after creating a lead character that’s so complex, Ms. Edson leaves the three-dimensions at the door and gives rudimentary traits to the rest of the cast.

Radu Azdril plays the head doctor as well as Vivian’s father in a brief flashback. For some reason Mr. Azdril plays both with a rather angry and brusque bedside manner, when the lines don’t need so much telegraphing.

Randy Singer is great as the young M.D. Jason, who is working his way through med school and treats Vivian less like a person and more like a petri dish. He’s counterbalanced by Jennifer Shepard as the kindly nurse Susie, who offers Vivian the few moments of comfort during the whole ordeal. Marion Freitag plays Vivian’s mentor E.M. Ashford, who gets two scenes, the second of which is the play’s most touching–and where the play gives up any allegiance to Vivian’s anti-melodrama wishes.

Vivian Bearing has spent her years denying the heart and living the life of the mind. Her specialty is Donne, though, unlike the metaphysical poet, she doesn’t appear to have an earlier, lustier state to her career. When it comes to the pain of cancer eating away at the very marrow of her bones, words, Vivian’s solace and shield, fail her.

Those who have personally been touched by cancer will have wildly differing reactions to the play, I imagine, as will, on the other hand, literature majors and professors, who once again witness the learned class characterized as cold and cerebral-by contrast, but not surprisingly, the kindest person in the play is the least formerly educated. If one was to think about the dichotomies of “Wit” too much, the anti-intellectualism ensconced in the writing may undermine it. But Ms. Edson throws ideas out and then obliterates them with scenes of physical pain-the play’s structure replicates the internal life of its protagonist.

The play succeeds chiefly on its own velocity-it catches you in its rushing mortality. “Wit” is very American in its distrust of language, its wariness of intellectualism, and in its nervousness in dealing with death. That it transcends these problems is to the playwright’s credit, maybe not necessarily brave, but hopeful.

When: October 30-November 2, November 6-8. All shows at 8 p.m. except Nov. 2, at 2 p.m.
Where: Garvin Theater, Santa Barbara City College
Cost: $19 general; $15 seniors; $10 students (Matinee: $17/$13/$8)
Information: Call 965-5935

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