Nicu’s Spoon’s revival of Margaret Edson’s 1999 Pulitzer Prize winning play is certainly full of wit—but better than that, it’s hilarious, heartrending, and profoundly haunting. You feel its impact long after you leave the theater.
Reviewed by Di Jayawickrema
“I don’t want to give away the plot…but I think I die at the end,” comes the inflexibly dry announcement of Vivian Bearing, bald, clad in a hospital gown, and clutching an IV stand. Bearing, a 50-year-old professor of 17th century poetry (specializing in John Donne) is dying of stage IV ovarian cancer and has no time to mince words. However, in her final hours in a hospital room, she is forced to confront the fact that she has spent a lifetime doing just that. In the scholarly pursuit of wit—“for wit is way to see how good you really are, and no one is as good as [her]”—Vivian Bearing finds she has missed out on the simple connections that make life meaningful. W;t is as rigorously intellectual as its protagonist, but unlike Dr. Bearing, it does not shy away from emotional truths—it cuts to the quick of human existence with searing honesty.
Alvaro Sena’s direction is as controlled and impeccable as writing of this caliber demands. The capable cast hits every cue needed to maintain the wry tone of the play. “I’ll never forget the day I found out I have cancer,” Bearing says. Her doctor appears upstage: “You have cancer.” As he delivers the prognosis, Bearing pontificates on the etymology of his medical terms. She has an “insidious” cancer and to combat it, she’s given the strongest treatment possible, which has “pernicious side effects." Tough and uncompromising, Vivian Bearing, played luminously by Stephanie Barton-Farcas, holds fiercely to the only weapon she has—her words. As the play progresses, you see what she doesn’t have—family, children, friends—not a soul to visit her until an old professor drops by on the way to see a sick grandson.
Through a series of flashbacks, we learn how Vivian Bearing has come to live a life without “a touch of human kindness.” As an ardent graduate student, Bearing failed to understand that truth, not wit, is the meaning of Donne’s work—that intellect and emotion should not be separate in poetry or life. This is a lesson the unsympathetic lab technicians and ambitious young doctor, Jason Posner, have also failed to learn. In Jason (the able Sammy Mena), Bearing finds her counterpart. His passion is all for his research—because “cancer is awesome”—and he finds the care of patients an annoying distraction. He sees her as nothing more than a way to advance his research, and as a researcher herself, she fully understands. Throughout, Bearing consciously comments on the action of the play and compares the sterile nature of modern medicine to literary scholarship. But when at last she drops her lecturer’s biting, impersonal voice and dips into the sad truths of her situation—“I’m in so much pain”—the contrast is all the more heartbreaking.
In this clinical environment, Vivian finds that it is only the head nurse, Susie (a touching Rebecca Challis), who shows her the “kindness and simplicity” she needs as her life draws to a close. With tears glittering in her eyes, Barton-Fracas delivers the last of Vivian’s most wrenching soliloquies; reciting Donne’s “My playes last scene… my minute’s latest point,” she realizes that she has missed the point. With Stephen Wolfe’s blinding white lighting illuminating the backboard of her hospital bed, completely unclad, no longer hiding behind wit, Vivian Bearing disappears. It’s a brilliant play’s final transcendent moment.
W;t (95 minutes; no intermission)
Location: Nicu’s Spoon Theater (38 West 38th Street; Fl. 5)
Performances: 4/7-4/25 (Weds-Sats @ 8PM, Suns @ 2PM)
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