There’s nothing funny about cancer, but Dr. Vivian Bearing (Deborah Gilmour Smyth), professor of 17th-century metaphysical poetry (emphasis on John Donne), faces her diagnosis (Stage 4 metastatic ovarian cancer) with as much humor as she can muster.
“It is not my intention to give away the plot,” she says with a rueful smile, “but I think I die at the end. They've given me less than two hours.”
Smyth gives a bravura, not-to-be-missed performance as Vivian in Margaret Edson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Wit” through Nov. 17 at Lamb’s Players Theatre. Robert Smyth directs.
Dr. Harvey Kelekian (Jim Chovick) wants her in his study of a new eight-month chemotherapy regimen. The chemo will be super strong and the results not guaranteed, but he convinces her of the importance of the research and she signs on the dotted line.
What follows is physically predictable but intellectually stimulating, as this vibrant, verbal and yes, funny academic tries to keep her mind on something besides the poking, prodding and other assorted indignities her weakening condition subject her to.
She commiserates with Dr. Kelekian about students and their “undergraduate banality,” and the fact that she must allow their brains “to rest” after the “heroic effort” of thinking.
She is a bit embarrassed when Kelekian’s young clinical fellow, Dr. Jason Posner (Jason Heil) – all technique, no bedside manner – shows up to take her history and do a pelvic exam, and closer to mortified when she finds out he is one of her former students.
In flashback, she meets her academic mentor, E.M. Ashford (Sylvia M’Lafi Thompson), who chides her for using a version of the text that renders the last line of Donne’s sonnet “Death, be not proud” this way: “And Death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die!”
It’s not a semicolon, she says. “Nothing but a breath – a comma – separates life from life everlasting,” Ashford says. “It’s a comma, a pause.”
Finding parallels between her situation and Donne’s writings is intellectually satisfying, but Vivian finds that what she needs is something simpler – plain, old-fashioned kindness. And among the squads of medical personnel she sees, only nurse Susie Monahan (Cynthia Gerber) provides that on a daily basis.
Edson, a middle-school teacher, was inspired to write this play by her experience working in an AIDS-oncology research hospital for two years.
Director Smyth’s excellent cast wrings both pathos and humor out of this difficult play. Chovick’s businesslike researcher contrasts a bit with Heil’s “gotta-get-this-right” attitude. Gerber and the other three actors (Caitie Grady, Bryan Barbarin and Kaja Amado Dunn) complete Vivian’s hospital universe as technicians, fellows and students. Thompson’s Dr. Ashford provides a heartwrenchingly poignant scene toward the end.
But this show belongs to Vivian, and Deborah Gilmour Smyth is stunning in what must be an emotionally exhausting role.
“Wit” is difficult to watch for anyone who has watched a loved one go through this rather dehumanizing experience. But it is certainly an affecting piece of theater.
“Wit” plays through Nov. 17 at Lamb’s Players Theatre, 1142 Orange Ave., Coronado.
Tuesday through Thursday at 7:30 pm; Friday at 8 pm; Saturday at 4 and 8 pm; Sunday at 2 pm.
To read more reviews by SDGLN Theater Critic Jean Lowerison, click HERE.