The title of this play is spelled with a semicolon at its center framed by a “W” and a “t”. It refers to the profession and precision of Vivian Bearing, Ph.D., and the British poet, John Donne, whose works are the love of her life. The wit referred to is not clever repartee, as in the poems of Ogden Nash, but a complicated search for Truth, a probing of the ultimate meaning of living, a rejection of superficiality, an uncompromising look at the complicated thing that we call life.
Dr. Vivian Bearing has spent her life teaching the complex works of John Donne in an uncompromising manner. Now she has to face what Donne is talking about in reference to her own life – she has stage four metastatic ovarian cancer. As she so poignantly puts it: “There is no stage five.” As we look back into her past we discover that she has been unbending in her standards and dedicated to understanding the most difficult of the British poets and conveying her findings to students, who don’t necessarily share her love for Donne.
As cancer, the super disease, takes her life, Vivian has flashbacks of her life, including her childhood. Near the end, she is visited by her mentor, E.M. Ashford, D.Phil., played by Carol Dines. Vivian does not want to listen to the poems of Donne – her concentration is gone. Ashford, not knowing what to do, chooses to read to her from a children’s book she is carrying for her grandchildren instead. Vivian does not object.
When cared for by her primary nurse, Susie Monahan, she just wants to suck on a popsicle to ease the pain and to be allowed to die in peace.
Monahan, played warmly by Lauren LeBlanc, serves as a foil between Dr. Harvey Kelekian, played by Russ Dunlap, and his assistant, Dr. Jason Posener, played by Andy Epstein. They are scientists, intellectuals, who are fascinated by cancer as an intellectual problem but forget that they are dealing with humans, not research animals. They want to prolong life to figure out how to “beat cancer” but are only superficially involved with their patients in any other way.
A constant mantra throughout the play is the phrase, “How are you doing.” The answer from the patient’s perspective is always “fine,” which when intoned by Carol Williams, playing Vivian Bearing, means “what a stupid question.”
Susie is there to try to bridge the gap between intellect and compassion. She is around to defend the patients right to die on her own terms and in the end she prevails. Vivian is allowed to die; her life is not prolonged in the name of science.
This play is a big change from the last CenterStage offering, Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. Kudos to Artistic Director John Leffert for selecting a play dedicated to an issue that affects everyone.
It is not easy to watch. It forces you to laugh at Vivian’s “wit” at one level and agonize with her near the end. You rage at her doctors, love Susie and admire Vivian.
Ultimately, you have to watch her die and, in the end, learn about yourself, which is just what John Donne – and Vivian – would want you to do.
This play hinges on the performance of the actor who plays Vivian Bearing, in this case, Carol Williams. Williams is up to the task and that is what makes it an impressive experience for the audience.
“W;t” is complicated, frustrating in parts, difficult and prickly, as is its subject, Dr. Vivian Bearing and her literary mentor, John Donne. The audience is forced to face unpleasant truths and that’s what elevates it to heights that most plays never achieve.