A tour de force performance challenges mortality in this Pulitzer Prize-winning drama
Wit, Hub Theatre Company of Boston (First Church of Boston, through November 19. Pay-what-you-can, hubtheatreboston.org)
By Jules Becker
Can poetry challenge mortality? John Donne thought so in his early 17th century Holy Sonnet 10 “Death be not proud.”
Margaret Edson – inspired by the great metaphysical poet’s closing assertion “Death, thou shalt die.” – turned that defiance and the exquisite intricacies of Donne’s famous poem into a singular modern-day Excalibur in her 1999 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, “Wit.”
Hub Theatre Company of Boston artistic director John Geoffrion is pacing heroine Vivien Bearing’s formidable battle with scalpel sharpness and a tour de force performance by Liz Adams as the terminally ill university professor.
Set in real time at a university hospital and places in Vivian’s memory, “Wit” (also spelled “W;t” to suggest Donne’s work with semicolons) brilliantly moves back and forth between medical treatment of Vivian’s metastatic stage four ovarian cancer and the teacher’s undaunted implementation of Donne’s verses as an unlikely but strangely potent weapon. As the playbill notes, Edson — now a sixth grade social studies teacher living with her partner in Atlanta, Georgia — worked between degrees in a cancer treatment wing of a research hospital. That experience shows in the authenticity of the medical detail and the depiction of the cycles of experimental treatment employed by her doctors – Harvey Kelekian and his protégé, Jason Posner.
If this sounds like a didactic, overly academic play, think again. At some moments of memory, Vivian recalls her students – both insightful and clueless — in poetry classes as demanding in their own way as Kelekian’s rounds. At others, she recalls her own tenacious mentor E.M. Ashford – as precise in her analysis of Donne sonnets as her distinguished protégé will be on her own.
There are also tender moments — notably as Vivian recalls learning the word “soporific” (sleep-inducing) with her father from a Beatrix Potter book, and when caring nurse Suzie Monahan shares popsicle sticks and moments of levity with her.
Ultimately, Vivian herself – onstage throughout and always a compelling figure — makes Edson’s play both a fascinating examination of the similar investigative methods of medicine and metaphor-brandishing Donne, and a moving dramatic encounter with human mortality. Liz Adams is so persuasive conveying Vivian’s vitality and vulnerability that her performance becomes as seamlessly natural as all great ones. She easily captures the professor’s passion explaining and declaiming Donne’s richly ironic and inspiring verses. Adams also makes Vivian’s later moments of excruciating pain chillingly palpable.
A stellar ensemble makes the contrast between Vivian’s life in literature and the hospital’s commitment to medical science and exploration for cures vividly clear. Robert Bonotto catches all of Kelekian’s imperiousness with his subordinates – especially in a sudden outburst — and his warmth as Vivian’s father. Tim Hoover finds Posner’s admiration for Bearing and his apprentice-level deference to Kelekian.
Lauren Elias is properly responsive and giving as Nurse Suzie. Dayenne C. B. Walters makes the most of Ashford’s tough love guidance as Vivian’s mentor early on and her comforting manner with her protégé in a touching later moment.
Geoffrion’s smart blocking reaches a high point as Posner, interns and Suzie have a chaotic moment arguing about Vivian’s wishes regarding resuscitation. Dierdre Benson’s sound design enhances the veracity of the hospital setting.
Liz Adams achieves a poignant epiphany as Vivian eventually walks into a surreal light. At the same moment, this amazing revival enters our hearts forever.