Margaret Edson's play Wit, about a demanding English professor who's dying of cancer, won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1999. Numerous productions, naturally, have resulted. (The current production at the Civic's Studio Theater continues through May 11.) HBO recently turned it into a teleplay (with Mike Nichols directing and Emma Thompson starring).
Having seen the movie more recently than the last stage production I'd witnessed, I'd forgotten how self-reflexive the theatrical script is. The cancer victim, Dr. Vivian Bearing, plays chorus to her own play: she acts within the action, then steps outside and comments on it. We know she's going to die, and soon -- in her opening speech, she tells us so herself. Wit isn't a mystery about what happens to Vivian Bearing; it's an analysis of why such things happen.
And why they happen has much to do with the good professor being Dr. Over Bearing at times: she's arrogant, sure that absolute rigor and meticulousness will get her through all of life's (and death's) trials. Never mind about such pesky details as kindness, relationships and the need for others. She can go it alone. That's how grad school went. That must be what life is like.
The lesson of Edson's play is to teach us how wrong she is. She may have used her intellect to convince herself that death is merely a transition and not a full cessation -- but the imminence of death, her own death, tests her resolve. (Ours, too.)
As Dr. Bearing, the dominant character, Scarlett Hepworth gives the finest theatrical performance by a local actress this season. She's so wise and convincing in the role that we believe many things about her -- that she's smart, wounded, aloof, angry, defensive, ironic, ultimately frightened. More important, we believe she's seriously ill: with her haggard looks, her hair completely gone beneath her baseball cap, Hepworth looks the part of the cancer victim. She has made the necessary personal sacrifices.
When Hepworth gets the chills as a response to her chemotherapy, it's hard to watch -- she really seems to be suffering. When she uses irony against impersonal doctors and imperceptive students, we see the brilliant intellect that doesn't tolerate error.
Even with a performance this good, of course, quibbles are possible. The script has Hepworth talking a lot about how demanding and perfectionist her character is -- but we have to see those traits, too. And a sudden transition to fear and weeping seemed unprepared for. Still, Hepworth's acting throughout is a revelation. She's impressive.
William C. Marlowe's direction is interesting and varied, with just a few lapses. For a sequence in which Vivian is shuffled from one impersonal medical probe to the next testing contraption, Marlowe has her pushed across the stage, posed, then subjected to weird combinations of lights and sounds: medical testing done by alien invaders. It's a nice touch, one that drives home just how impersonal much of the medical profession is. A nurse (Maria A. Caprile) pursues the patient in circles across the stage, turning the wheelchair into a kind of predator. Marlowe plays up the comedy unnecessarily, however, in scenes about doctors making grand rounds in a hospital and college students misbehaving during class. The script reveals their incompetence enough without its needing to be underscored by onstage antics.
Accustomed to lecturing others about subjects she knows well, the tables get turned on Vivian late in the play when she becomes a student herself, listening avidly as a medical researcher, once her own student, discourses on the awesome destructive and regenerative power of cancer cells. As the researcher, Jason Posner, M.D., Patrick Walrath does a fine job of playing up his character's impersonal ambition and interpersonal bumbling without turning Posner into a caricature.
Vivian realizes that she's devolved into a cancerous carcass fit to be experimented on. She chuckles with irony when she contemplates the medical journal article that will be written about her. Formerly, she yearned to publish in all the right journals; now, as she nears death, the frenzy of climbing the academic ladder seems merely pointless to her. She used to obsess over the tiniest details of John Donne's Holy Sonnet, "Death, be not proud." But before death can be humbled, it's the professor who must lose her pride: Professor, be not proud. (Full stop; a necessary first realization.) Professor, thou shalt die. (The most humbling realization of all.)
In the HBO movie, Nichols frames Thompson's gaunt face in extreme close-up for what seems like the entire final half of the film. On a stage, Hepworth can't achieve that kind of intimacy. Yet because she has to project her voice and gestures out into the black box theater, Hepworth's childlike submissiveness is all the more touching near the end, when, curled in a fetal position, clinging to the hallucination of her old mentor, she listens to an uncomplicated childhood story: A simpler text than Donne's, for a more profound journey. For Vivian Bearing, Doctor of Philosophy in Literature, the intricacies of life's book are fading. All that's left now is the murmuring of essential lessons and the moving on.