Play seeks cancer's 'Wit'
Pulitzer-winning drama addresses mortality, coping
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By CHARLES RUNNELLS
Stephanie Davis who plays Nurse Susie Monahan pulls Dr. Jason Posner, played by Greg Longenhagen, from patient Dr. Vivian Bearing, played by Kim Crow, during a recent rehearsal of 'Wit' being performed by the Florida Repertory Theatre at the Arcade Theater in downtown Fort Myers.
When Margaret Edson wrote the drama 'Wit' 10 years ago, she thought audiences would avoid it like the plague. People wanted sunshine and Andrew Lloyd Weber, she reasoned. They didn't want death, cancer and the metaphysical poetry of John Donne.
Edson ended up being pleasantly surprised.
'Wit' has become one of the most acclaimed new plays of the late '90s. It won the 1999 Pulitzer Prize and has been made into an HBO movie starring Emma Thompson and Christopher Lloyd that premieres March 24.
The play starts a three-week run Friday at the Arcade Theatre in Fort Myers, and is now being produced at other regional theaters throughout the country. It was first produced in 1995 at the Southcoast Repertory Theatre in Cosa Mesa, Calif. It later saw popular productions in Seattle and Broadway.
Play's success surprising Edson doesn't understand why the play has done so well, but she's happy it has. 'Oh, I'm really surprised,' said the quick-witted, good-humored Edson, 39, speaking from her home in Atlanta. 'The play is very prickly it's very thorny, even. And I'm surprised people are willing to take a chance on it.'
Still, the dead-serious subject matter of 'Wit' (spelled 'W;t' in some press material a clever reference to the play's subtext about poetry and punctuation) has enough humor and hope to make it more transcendent than an exercise in bleakness. 'The play sounds very sad and depressing,' said Edson, an Atlanta kindergarten teacher. 'It just sounds very bleak. But people are just going to have to trust me. I'm not going to create something bleak. I'm not a despairing person. My sincerest hope is that they get some sense of grace at the end.'
Star ready for lead role
The Arcade Theatre's production is handled by New York director Pamela Hunt and stars Sarasota actress Kim Crow, who played the Grand Duchess in Florida Repertory Theatre's recent production of 'You Can't Take It With You.'
'When I heard about it, I knew I had to do it,' Crow said. Her head was bald and gleaming, recently shaved for the role. 'I know this woman. I know this woman.'
Crow's character, the renowned Dr. Vivian Bearing, is a sarcastic, pathologically intellectual college professor who studies the metaphysical poetry of John Donne at the expense of forming real relationships with people. When she's diagnosed with fatal ovarian cancer, she soon finds everything she's based her life on thrown into question.
As the play and her cancer progress, Bearing lets go of her callousness and becomes simple and human again. All her intelligence, she learns, hasn't done her a bit of good in the end.
'Cancer doesn't show favoritism,' Hunt explained. 'Everyone is equal in the eyes of this disease.'
Exploring relationships The play also examines the relationship between the dying and their health care professionals from the compassionate nurse Susie to the awkward, nervous Dr. Jason Posner, who, much like Bearing, would rather look through microscopes at dividing cancer cells than deal face-to-face with the human beings affected by them.
The local production is sponsored by Southwest Florida Regional Medical Center, which provided technical advice and lent IV poles, catheter kits, hospital beds and other props to the troupe. 'The hospital certainly thought it was important to the community to have this play produced,' said Marti Van Veen, director of business development for the hospital. 'The play really shows the relationship that Dr. Bearing has with her nurse, and those types of relationships are so important and so powerful.'
The hospital donated $12,000 for the production, part of which goes to discounted tickets for students, particularly medical students. 'The play is very educational,' Van Veen said. 'Health professionals can make such a difference in the final moments of a patient's life. We wanted people to see that.'
The critics have raved about 'Wit.' Peter Marks of The New York Times called it, 'a brutally human and beautifully layered new play. .... You feel both enlightened and, in a strange way, enormously comforted.'
Robert L. Daniels of 'Variety' said it was 'cogent and illuminating' and 'resonates with lyrical dialogue, punctuated with sudden, viciously funny barbs.'
Actress Crow couldn't agree more. In a recent interview, she talked about the truth in the play, its story of redemption, its scathing humor and particularly Edson's lush, poetic language.
'Her language is so incredible,' Crow said. 'She writes in iambics, and this is the rhythm of the heartbeat. And as the play progresses, that meter gets stronger and stronger, so in the final words that Vivian speaks, it's all in heartbeats.
'It's just an amazing thing to breathe.'
People have told Crow how brave it was for her to shave her head for the role. But there's bravery in other aspects of her performance, such as the way the script requires her to wring herself out emotionally every night.
'It's hard,' Crow said, sitting in Florida Rep's rehearsal room. 'The role demands endurance. There is not a molecule of me, mentally, physically and spiritually, that hasn't been deconstructed and reassembled in preparing for this production.
'I've been stripped physically and emotionally and there's the pyrotechnics of the concepts, the journey of the soul, the facing of the truth inside yourself and finding redemption.'
Although the script calls for a moment of brief nudity onstage, Crow and Hunt declined to talk about it. 'I'm handling it in a different way,' Hunt said. 'It's much more subtle.'
Crow's husband shaved her head for her, and it really wasn't hard to get used to, she said.
'Sometimes, though, it's tough when people at Wal-Mart call you 'mister.' '
Edson isn't sure where the character of Dr. Vivian Bearing came from. It's not based on anyone she knew, she said. 'She just walked into my mind, pushing that IV pole and wearing that baseball cap.
'I'm told that I do have a certain resemblance to her. I don't know how flattering that is.'
Edson got the idea for 'Wit' in 1985, when she was working as a unit clerk at a Washington, D.C., teaching hospital. As an outside observer, she was able to watch how patients reacted to fatal diseases, and how the doctors, nurses and patients interacted.
Edson said she's pleased with the HBO movie version of 'Wit,' but she thinks the movie and the play are two completely different experiences.
'In the play, the main character has a relationship with the audience, and the audience represents the person who she's sharing what has happened in her life with,' she said.
'In the film, the same purpose, with a different effect, is served in the quiet solitude of the camera. The camera just sits patiently by the bedside.'
Unfortunately for those who want more plays from Edson, she doubts she'll be able to oblige. She doesn't plan on writing again. 'I wrote my heart out when I wrote that play,' she said. 'Now I'm done.'
These days, she's focusing on the kindergarten students she teaches in Atlanta. 'I'm on my toes every day teaching,' she said. 'It's very challenging. I spend more time every day creating then most artists and writers.
'I really wanted to write this one play, and that's all. I don't want to be a writer.The contribution I want to make now, I'm making in the classroom.'