At Wit's End

Those of us foolish enough to have left our handkerchiefs at home exited last week's matinee of Wit wet-faced and weary. Arizona Theatre Company's production of this extraordinary play, which won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1999, is an emotionally exhausting hour and a half.

Both entertaining and intellectually challenging, Wit brings us fiftyish Vivian Bearing, Ph.D. (Karen Grassle), a renowned English professor who teaches the vividly complicated metaphysical sonnets of John Donne. She arrives onstage in hospital robes, dragging an IV pole behind her, and explains to us that she's just been diagnosed with terminal ovarian cancer. In the Comprehensive Cancer Center of a university hospital, Vivian approaches her illness in much the same way as her studies: rationally, inquisitively and with cunning humor. Like her stern, non-humanist approach to teaching, the medical system for which she's become a pawn emphasizes procedure over compassion. Vivian untangles the difference between love, which she's dodged all her life, and knowledge, which she's embraced.

Author Margaret Edson pulls no punches about the ravages of illness. When she isn't captivating us with ironic sallies about her life and work, Vivian is puking into a plastic tub or wailing about the pain she's in. This isn't movie-of-the-week cancer; there are no compassionate doctors, no last-minute lover for our heroine. Save the occasional requisite flashback, the story takes place during the last weeks of Vivian's life, by which time she's already lost her hair to chemotherapy and her will to survive the pain that ravages her body. She quickly becomes a guinea pig in an experimental treatment program overseen by a former student (Jason Kuykendall), whose style is as clinical and heartless as was Vivian's in the classroom.

This sort of irony unfolds effortlessly, but there's an unfortunate amount of time spent trying to make Donne relevant to the piece. A scene in which Vivian leads a discussion of Donne's Holy Sonnet X, "Death, Be Not Proud" (from which Wit borrows its struggle with death), drones on and on; in another, we listen while a stern, matronly professor (Jean Burch) extrapolates on the use of punctuation in Donne's writing.

But Burch's character returns in a brilliantly written scene -- one of those rare, perfect moments in theater where every moment that has preceded it is referenced, where every word is measured, every loose end tied up. As her old friend climbs into Vivian's hospital bed with a children's book, the audience -- which has been waiting the duration of the play for this moment -- finds the emotional center of this difficult play.

Edson's single theatrical conceit finds Vivian calling attention to the play itself. In the hands of a lesser actress, this old technique could easily sink the story. But Grassle (best known for her portrayal of the mother on television's Little House on the Prairie) delivers a magnificently emotional performance, full of compassion but never syrupy or sentimental.

Edson, a kindergarten teacher, wrote Wit 10 years ago while working in a bike shop. (I spoke with her the morning her Pulitzer win was announced; she was trapped in her Atlanta classroom, cleaning up after a dozen 5-year-olds. "They tell me that not only did I win the prize, but money goes with it, too!" she said, laughing. Because there was no champagne handy, Edson toasted her win with a kid-size carton of chocolate milk, then excused herself to go pass out crayons.)

Wit sprang in part from Edson's experience as a clerk on the cancer ward of a major research hospital, but her play isn't about disease or mortality. It's about the balance between love and knowledge, and what can happen when one tries to substitute one for the other. Vivian's nothing but knowledge and, when she's suddenly thrust into a situation where love would better serve her, she's adrift. While we watch, she learns to invert the two, all the while knowing this wisdom won't save her.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela