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Bearing Up with Grace and "Wit" [ - ]
by taxifan
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Author: Jayne Blanchard
Source: Washington Times
Date | Issue: 03/04/2000 | NA
Topic: Judith Light
Submitted by: taxifan

Bearing Up Grace and "Wit"

By Jaynce Blanchard

What reduces a warrior to a husk? One word: cancer.
In "Wit," Margaret Edson's smart and wrenching play, Dr. Vivian Bearing (Judith Light) is not a soldier in the traditional sense. Words are her weapon, punctuation her armor, erudition her battle cry.

Throughout her brilliant career teaching the poetry of 17th-century metaphysic John Donne, Dr. Bearing has rabidly defended the English language against the encroachment of bad grammar, lazy pronunciation, slang and the most egregious blow of all - coming to easy or simple conclusions about what a poet is trying to say.

Much to her surprise and scholarly fascination, words ultimately fail her when she's called to fight stage-4 ovarian cancer (as she wryly explains, there is no stage 5) and signs up for brutal, experimental treatment. As if her illness were a deliciously puzzling sentence, she diagrams her journey from uncompromising professor and wordsmith to lonely patient thirsty for a drop of human kindness. After a lifetime of passionately, minutely parsing the stanzas of Donne's poems, Dr. Bearing finds comfort in the uncluttered prose of the children's book "The Runaway Bunny" when she is whimpering with pain - a plain, lovely moment in a play about a woman's life that was devoted to confounding complexities.

"Wit" is the lecture on this process that she finally gets a chance to deliver. Directed with a calm, crisply flowing energy by Leah C. Gardiner, "Wit" begins with Dr. Bearing's diagnosis, as she discusses her cancer professional-to-professional with Dr. Harvey Kelekian (Brian Smiar), and questions his use of the word "insidious" as he gives her a perfunctory rundown of her condition. Vivian is, as described by compassionate nurse Susie Monahan (Lisa Tharps), no cupcake. Even when bald and clad in a red baseball cap and two hospital gowns, she is an imposing figure. She enunciates cleanly and impeccably and does not suffer fools gladly (and that includes everyone who is not as high-toned and esoteric as she is). Her considerable wittiness springs from the grammatical and intellectuals gaffes she is forced to endure.

In short, Vivian is every demanding, unforgettable college professor you've ever had. However, a big vocabulary does not prepare her for what's to come: eight full-throttle rounds of chemotherapy and the experience of being dissected and treated like a lab specimen by Dr. Kelekian and his brusque assistant, Dr. Jason Posner (Daniel Sarnelli, who ironically was one of Vivian's former students).

Through a series of marvelously distilled flashbacks, we see that Vivian is more than up to the task. She's tough, as well as tough- minded, as she marches staunchly toward a life of the mind and never looks back. With that enviable detachment of brilliant, analytical intellects, Vivian watches and comments bemusedly as her once fulfilling, language-drunk existence is reduced to being wheeled from test to test, to endlessly spelling her last name to anonymous technicians, to vomiting and to observing her life dripping away as slowly and precisely as the fluids in her IV bags. She is amused at how needy she has become for a little attention and a kind word, both of which are graciously bestowed by Susie, played with humaneness by Miss Tharps.

With all of Vivian's lordly condescension and chilly sense of humor, you would not exactly say she is warm company. But she is a fascinating woman, and she has the effect on the audience that you imagine she had on her students. Her command of the English language holds you in thrall, and you marvel at the beady fire in her eyes as she speaks. Her mind and tongue running smoothly over words as if she were a princess placidly searching for the right jewel among an infinite many.

Miss Light (best known for playing Angela Bower on ABC's "Who's the Boss?") is incandescent as Dr. Bearing. She possesses the flawless diction and booming voice of a professor who feels the world is her lectern. Her performance is as honed and pristine as Dr. Bearing' s intellect - there is not much waste or foolishness in it. Even when Miss Light is reduced to emitting only sounds, they are beautifully chosen and apt. At times you wish Miss Light's delivery had more coloration, but then again, her approach is possibly fitting given Dr. Bearing's one-track mind.

"Wit" is probably best appreciated if you've gone through a similar experience yourself or with a loved one. My mother died of a rare disease, and she was a human guinea pig toward the end of her life. Even though I reveled in "Wit's" linguistic pyrotechnics of the wordplay concerning Donne's poems - the expansive intellect of it all reminding me of Tom Stoppard - what was especially searing were the scenes in which Dr. Bearing is treated like a thing and is endlessly examined with a cold, clinical eye.

Like Dr. Bearing, my mother was constantly told how she was benefiting science and future research, but all she really wanted was a Tylenol and a pat on the arm, anything to make her feel her flesh belonged to her again.

The final image in "Wit" is of Vivian Bearing rising from her hospital bed and shedding the accouterments of illness until she stands tall and naked in a glowing spill of light. I imagine that is what it was like for my mother: the IV tubes slipping away and the hospital bracelet falling from her wrist as her body suddenly became hers again and as healthy as her soul as she sprinted toward heaven.