20 October 1999: Edson, Wit

In New York City for meetings tomorrow, I took the opportunity to come early and see two plays, both of them quite wonderful. (For the second play, Death of a Salesman, see below.)

Wit, by Margaret Edson. Union Square Theatre, East 17th Street. Runs almost two hours without intermission. Hard to believe this is a first play by a thirty-nine-year-old elementary school teacher in Atlanta. (Think of Miller’s first plays … ) A tour de force for the central actor — Vivian Bearing, PhD, the character; and the PhD is very important. She is a Donne scholar with a major interest in the late religious poems. She teaches what she believes in. But this is no Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. The action lies, not in a classroom or a research library, but in the oncology unit of a hospital, where Vivian Bearing lies dying of “fourth-stage metastatic ovarian cancer.” (“There is no fifth stage.”) Much flashback, alongside a convention that acknowledges from the start that this is a play: Vivian’s play. But the initial emphasis on a kind of post-modern self-consciousness recedes in favor of a very fast-paced action made up of a lot of rather short scenes, punctuated early on by Vivian’s directly addressing the audience.

So — two unlikely subjects for a good play — a Donne scholar, and a death from ovarian cancer. But Edson brings it off — with much help from the central performance by Judith Light, a TV actress who has replaced the original actress, Kathleen Chalfont. This is a stunning, harrowing performance that results in a standing ovation. There are some infelicities about the play that signal an inexperienced dramatist, most especially the question of how to end it: Edson goes for a kind of apotheosis in which the actress takes off her johnnie and, standing naked in yellow light, raises her arms high, as if to illustrate the ending of Donne’s sonnet “Death be not proud”: ” … There’s no more dying then.” A transcendent moment, but it seems to play a little false with the previous half-hour process of dying in which Vivian’s fear at last takes precedence over her heroic self-possession and self-control.

But the key to the character is that under the bluff, no-nonsense, authoritarian schoolmarm exterior lies a deeply human and humane person. A greater or more experienced dramatist would have found more complexity and ambiguity in these materials than does Edson. In particular, the character of the young research medic, Vivian’s former student (but who majored in biology, not English), Jason Posner, is unrelentingly cold and inhumane; he is too starkly simplistic in his dramaturgical role of foil to Vivian and to the somewhat dim but more sympathetic nurse, Susie Monahan. Some good acting smooths over a good bit of this angularity, and the director keeps up a good fast pace especially notable for fast-cue scene changes: it is a very polished production. But the scene in which Jason insists on trying to resuscitate Vivian, who has chosen not to be resuscitated, doesn’t work well — it gets implausibly physical as Susie pushes him away from Vivian’s bed and in an angry outburst champions humane action even at the expense of precious experimental research. Jason is too much a cardboard character, as is Vivian’s oncologist Doctor Kelekian. Still, there is a clear sense of a woman finding her true humanity in a hostile, uncaring world.

These are mostly afterthoughts. The performance itself was engrossing. And, thanks to Judith Bright, memorable as well.

Miller, Death of a Salesman. Fifty year revival, with Brian Dennehy as Willie Loman and Elizabeth Franz as Linda. Production reviewed on 3 December 2000 (below).


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An American Playgoer at Home by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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