Wednesday, February 4, 2009

A Paradox of Life and Death in “Wit”

“Wit,” Margaret Edson’s startling and disturbing play, now at Sacramento’s B Street Theatre, rings with authenticity and won the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Those who’ve studied English literature at a demanding university will recognize the shock treatment of penetrating thought and fussy precision, to the point of pedantry, generated by its professors. And those who’ve worked in a hospital will recognize the dedication of its doctors.

Edson, who teaches kindergarten as her main profession, has enjoyed wide experience in both pursuits, and the connection she sees between them is rooted in their uncompromising pursuit of truth.

The central character, Vivian Bearing (Julia Brothers), a professor of 17th century literature, is diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Her passion is the metaphysical poetry of John Donne, the preeminent example of “wit,” as the term was understood in his time. Based on the “metaphysical conceit” it ripped truth out of paradox, unity out of contradiction. A key line in the play comes from Donne: “And death shall be no more, Death thou shalt die.” It also marks Vivian’s spiritual progress as she draws nearer and nearer to her own death.

A compassionate and elderly Dr. Harvey Kelekian (David Silberman) is in charge of her case and appoints a young physician, Jason Posner (Jason Kuykendall) to monitor her progress. By coincidence Jason turns out to be a former student from one of her classes. But his obsession turns out to be cancer and research into its cure. Cancer cells, he explains, never die; they have to be killed. And they represent “immortality in culture.”

Thus Vivian and Jason discover a kindred spirit, a devotion to research as they look for a way to transcend death itself. But their counterpoint is Susie Monahan (Katie Rubin), a kindly nurse who convinces Vivian that, in Vivian’s words, “now is the time for simplicity. Now is the time for, dare I say it, kindness.”

As the end approaches Vivian receives a visit from her own former teacher, E.M. Ashford (Catherine MacNeal), and rejects more readings from Donne. Instead she listens to a tale Ashford reads her from a children’s book.

Brothers, returning to B Street after a long absence, delivers a rich and complex performance, ably supported by a strong cast. As part of the B3 series “Wit” offers a rich and challenging experience aimed at adults. Directed by Greg Alexander it’s performed on a spare set designed by Ron Madonia. Adding to the artistry are quick scene changes through use of moveable privacy panels, like those used in hospitals.

“Wit” runs through February 28 at 2711 B Street, behind the Stanford Park Baseball Field. Performances are Tuesday through Friday at 7 p.m., Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday, at 1 p.m. on February 29. Matinees are at 2 p.m. on Thursday, February 12 and 19. Tickets are $22-$30, with student and senior discounts. Call (916) 443-5300.

For more about B Street, click the title of this post.

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