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The Big Uneasy 

When the house lights came up, after we had given the cast their well-deserved standing ovation, I walked over to a group of friends in the audience to say hello. It was only after we had been talking a few minutes that I noticed we were all whispering ... in unconscious respect for the empty hospital bed where Vivian had died only a few moments before.

Vivian Bearing, professor of 17th century English poetry, specializing in the Holy Sonnets of John Donne, is the protagonist of Margaret Edson's Pulitzer Prize-winning play Wit. She is an extraordinary individual -- currently being brought vividly to life at Southern Rep in Adriana Bate's flawless and haunting performance.

Wit draws its power from a strict economy that recalls classical drama. The heroine, in fact, first approaches us in a robe and bare feet -- albeit wearing a baseball cap to hide her balding head and pulling a mobile I.V. stand with her. It's an image that makes the heart sink, calling up, as it does, friends and family we have lost as well as the dreary path we ourselves will most likely have to follow. Also, frankly, we are reminded of a hundred emergency rooms that have flashed at us from the TV screen. In short, we are prepared to resist.

Almost immediately, however, Vivian has us intrigued, amused and involved. First of all, she's a wry, eccentric little creature. Then, there is her exotic vocation.

In one flashback scene, Vivian's mentor, professor Ashford (the always-compelling Charlotte Schully), launches into an impassioned attack on one modern edition of Donne's sonnets that mistakenly substitutes a semi-colon for a comma. Donne was "sacrificed to hysterical punctuation," as Ashford puts it. The diatribe is amusing. It seems the academics who are drawn to Donne share his taste for wit. But we also get a glimpse of a narrow, competitive world, analogous to the world of chess, where highly intelligent individuals strive ruthlessly against one another to win arcane battles.

A defining moment is tossed in, as it were, at the end of this scene, when the youthful Vivian declares she'll go right back to the library and get to work. Her mentor tells her instead to take some time off, have fun with her friends. But Vivian has no friends. She has nowhere else to go but the library. For the human warmth that is missing in her life, she will substitute an expertise in metaphysical poetry. "I always thought that being extremely smart would take care of it all," she says later, when the nearness of death and the brutality of her treatment has changed her perspective.

This scene also illustrates what I mean by the classicism of the piece. The short conference with her professor is nearly all we see of Vivian's life before her disease. The play stays radically focused on its essential story. We get to know Vivian deeply, but only by accompanying her on the one critical episode in her life that interests the playwright.

This episode -- her dying -- takes place in a force field of two opposing principles. The principles are incarnated by Jason (Vatican Lokey), a brash, ambitious young research doctor, who uses patients as a "means," and Susie (Amy Alvarez), a simple, decent, good-hearted nurse who responds to them as an "end." Both of these characters are brought to life with a convincing naturalness and an understated verve.

Much of the moment-by-moment enjoyment of the play comes from our privileged relationship with Vivian, who tells us her story with her characteristic wit and irony. Her repartee never has the tinny sound of one-liners. Sometimes she's arch, but sometimes she's just funny.

For instance, at their first meeting, Jason tells her he took her course -- because, with typical arrogance, he decided to take the three hardest courses on campus and get an A in each. "Did you?" she asks. "An A-minus," he confesses, putting on his rubber gloves to examine the tumor in her ovaries. There is a silence, when the humiliating ordeal is over and he has swept out of the room. Then she turns to the audience. "I wish I had given him an A," she says, ruefully.

A heartfelt thanks to director Bert Pigg for this well-crafted show. Kudos to Rex Badeaux for solid performances as the chief researcher, to Troy McVey for the excellent set and to Hugh Lester for the effective lighting.

This is not an easy play. But in a city where "easy" is a way of life, it's great to have a such a satisfying and memorable bit of "difficult" to savor. Don't miss it.

click to enlarge Professor Ashford (Charlotte Schully) reads to her dying protege Vivian Bearing (Adriana Bate) in Southern Rep's production of Wit. -
  • Professor Ashford (Charlotte Schully) reads to her dying protege Vivian Bearing (Adriana Bate) in Southern Rep's production of Wit.


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