WITBy Margaret Edson
Directed by Emily Scott Banks
Scenic Designer - Bob Lavallee
Lighting Designer - Bryan Stevenson
Costume Designer - Ric Drumont Leal
Properties Designer - Nichole Hull
Sound and Projection Designer - Jordana Abrenica
Scenic Artist - Shelbie Mac
Stage Manager - Karima Abdulla
Vivian Bearing, Ph.D. - Krista Scott
Harvey Kelekian, M.D. / Mr. Bearing - Michael James
Jason Posner, M.D. - Jerry Downey
Susie Monahan, R.N., B.S.N. - Stormi Demerson
E.M. Ashford, D. Phil. - Judy Keith
Lab Technicians / Students / Residents - Stephanie Fischer, Paul Johnson, Stephen Warren
Reviewed Performance: 4/6/2013
Reviewed by Rachel Elizabeth Khoriander, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
What is so stunning about Wit is that it's fully capable of presenting its morbid and often off-putting topic to an audience while invoking an equal amount of humor and pain, and sometimes a confusing mix of the two.
Then there's the fact that the audience can even understand Dr. Bearing despite the fact that she is one of the intelligentsia who have a predilection for engaging in the manifestation of prolix exposition through a buzzword disposition form of communication notwithstanding the availability of more comprehensible, punctiliously applicable, diminutive alternatives. Whew. Did you get that? I'm not sure I did, and I wrote it. Well, have no fear. Despite Dr. Bearing's tendency toward complex vocabulary, her character is still completely accessible and comprehensible throughout the play.
Finally, there is the fact that it's unusual to find a writer equally at home with Donne and the world populated by punctuation-obsessed literary academics as she is with neutropenia, procedures for catheter insertion, the pernicious side effects of high doses of chemotherapy, and a world inhabited by scientists cloaked in lab coats and test results. Though they seem to be at opposite ends of the spectrum, Wit's author, Margaret Edson, exposes the similarities: both realms contain individuals with a similar obsession - the single-minded pursuit of seemingly unravelable mysteries - and both have their own language. She should know. She has been an inhabitant of both worlds.
And so it seems has Krista Scott, the actress who capably fills the shoes of Dr. Bearing in Theatre Arlington's production of Wit. She portrays Bearing with remarkable accuracy. In fact, she so strongly brought to mind the professor who introduced me to the metaphysical poets that I wondered momentarily if she had somehow studied with the same woman. Unlike my former professor however, Bearing becomes more and more comprehensible as she moves closer to her ultimate fate; she loses more and more of the veneer of the researcher as she moves on. This, too, Scott handles masterfully, bemoaning her lapse into humanity even as the breaks in her didactic facade become ever more common.
Scott is similarly talented in her unparalleled ability to break down the wall between audience and actor. She is somehow simultaneously able to plead for our understanding and espouse her independence from others' judgment. Likewise, she can concurrently pull the audience into her world all the while holding herself separate and aloof.
The push and pull of her audience interactions not only seem to reflect the inner struggle Bearing faces as she tries desperately to remain true to her vision of Donne, but also reminds me of a sin wave - its peaks and valleys increasing in frequency as her death (or is it Death?) grows ever nearer. In short, Bearing's emotions seem to be representative of her own personal heart monitor, speeding up even as the rest of her body shuts down, which is made fully clear from Scott and, if intentional, is true genius on the part of Director Emily Scott Banks.
Scott's machinations, however, would be nothing without a strong supporting cast and hers is certainly mighty. Besides the handful of residents and students that pop up in various scenes, all very capable of transforming themselves through their bearing alone, there are the two doctors working Bearing's case, Dr. Posner and Dr. Kelekian, and the two women with the most profound impact on Bearing, Nurse Monahan and Dr. Ashford, Bearing's former mentor.
Jerry Downey as Dr. Posner, the resident assigned to the case, and Michael James as Dr. Kelekian, Posner's mentor and lead on the case, are excellently cast and seem to show us a vision of the researcher before and after prolonged exposure to those afflicted with an illness that they previously had considered thoroughly, but only in a theoretical fashion.
James is vigorous in his portrayal of Kelekian, who seems, despite his numerous years of research, to be finally coming to a vague realization that bed-side manner is important, while not completely understanding the whys and hows thereof. This is evident through James' occasional, albeit brief, fluctuations into a gentler mode of behavior and through his intermittent almost intentional refusal to have Kelekian meet his patient's eye. These moments are in stark contrast to James' depiction of Kelekian's typical commanding manner evidenced by his brusqueness and palpable frustration with Downey's Posner, who is fantastically impatient and disdainful of many of Kelekian's admonitions.
Downey physically expresses Posner's arrogance; his stomping, fretting, and occasional temper tantrums fully illustrate his frustration and willingness to throw out many of Kelekian's teachings in favor of his own view. Downey's Posner is constantly on the verge of teetering into nastiness, with a pent-up formidable energy expressed through his hunched, near stalking, movements. One of the few times he shows any sort of truly beneficent excitement is when discussing his fascination not with cancer on a broad scale, but with the actual cancer cells themselves. Then, Downey's eyes light up, a child-like wonder fills his face, and his shoulders relax, fully depicting Posner's immersion into his chosen dream world.
James, Downey, and Scott interact with one another in interesting ways, too. Director Banks has chosen to play up the teaching aspects of the script by having them all interact at varying times as both instructor and student. It is clear from the actors' facial expressions that not one of them is fully conscious that the student role is ever played, at least not by them. This makes all of the interactions between these three characters as they participate in Dr. Bearing's final dance even more fascinating to behold than they already are.
The two foils to these three consummate researchers are Nurse Susie Monahan, played by Stormi Demerson, and Dr. Ashford, played by Judy Keith. Demerson is one of the most relaxed and natural actors in the production, fully embodying a woman who, while perhaps less intelligent than the others in a book sense, is much more developed than they are emotionally. Demerson's Monahan is fully believable and there is no question as to why Bearing would be drawn to her calm, caring, sensible demeanor and to her graceful movements.
Dr. Ashford, though a smaller role, has some of the most powerful moments in the play, and Keith plays them warmly and gently. Keith makes it clear that there is much to learn from the woman Bearing once assisted with research, but that she understands that her role is to guide, not force. Ashford is the type of academic that Bearing disdained; she is more of a teacher than researcher, and she is the only academic in the play to have her own family, which seems, in her mind, to include Bearing. In their scenes together, Keith and Scott play off one another so beautifully and Keith's expression of her mothering instincts is so tender that it's difficult not to choke up when Ashford reappears in Bearing's life.
Costumes are simple, mainly consisting of a hospital gown for Dr. Bearing and white coats and scrubs for the hospital staff. Where more involved costumes are necessary, they have been chosen fittingly; Dr. Ashford's clothing is flowing and fairly stereotypical of a liberal arts academician, and Mr. Bearing's garb is smart and crisp with clean lines and conservative colors that seem terribly appropriate for the man who raised a person like Dr. Bearing.
The set for Wit, created by Bob Lavallee, is also minimalist but contains some useful features, notably the sheer curtains that cordon off Bearing's room from the rest of the hospital. They allow us to see the comings and goings of other characters in the background without being distracted from the main action, while simultaneously giving us unique insight into what Bearing's experience must be - living in a hospital bustling with people, aware of the movement going on around her, yet removed and alone.
The effect of the simple set and costuming is augmented by Director Banks' creative use of movement, both of furniture and of people, to keep the play from seeming too visually static. This technique works admirably, as does the use of the actors playing residents to perform set changes right in the middle of Bearing's ruminations onstage. We hardly notice the set changes occurring, and the two-hour long play seems much shorter than it is, even without an intermission.
Some of the onstage sleight of hand must be attributed to Lighting Designer Bryan Stevenson and Sound/Projection Designer Jordana Abrenica. Besides their use of light and sound to distract the audience, they are also adept at presenting Bearing's view of her world; lights dim where necessary, projected clouds and soothing music appear when Bearing is given morphine, the intercom system in the hospital is non-existent unless it relates to Bearing, and classical music swells at pointed moments throughout the play. Unfortunately, a few small flubs detract slightly from the intent - the volume of the music sometimes overwhelms the actors' dialogue and, on the night I attended, a missed lighting cue in the final few moments of the final scene made for an awkward costume change.
Given the extent of material that Wit gives its directors and actors to work with, it is a shame that Margaret Edson, who ultimately settled on teaching kindergarten as a career, does not intend to write anything else professionally. The insights garnered by audiences attending Wit are immense and inevitably lead to the question of what it means to have truly lived, and how passions fit into the meanings of life that we form.
Theatre Arlington's production of Wit does not cloud these questions with overly flowery poetics, instead focusing on the personal meaning that life, death, and even cancer, have for each of us. And, indeed, cancer seems to be the one blight that does touch each of us, if the murmurings of the audience and the commentary in the actors' profiles are any indication. Which is perhaps what makes Wit that much more relevant.
305 W. Main Street, Arlington, TX 76010
Runs through April 14th
Performances are Thursdays at 7:30pm, Fridays-Saturdays at 8:00pm, and Sundays at 2:00pm.
Tickets are $19.00 for adults, $17.00 for seniors and students, or $15.00 each for groups of 10 or more attending together.
For information and to purchase tickets, go online to www.theatrearlington.org and follow the links to Wit. You may also call the Box Office at 817-275-7661. Wine and beer are available on