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February 04, 2005

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Publication Date: Friday, February 04, 2005

Seeing humor in cancer Seeing humor in cancer (February 04, 2005)

Palo Alto Players' "Wit" a powerful piece of theater

By Diana Reynolds Roome

"I'm all right, really I am," said lead actress Susan Jackson, appearing in the lobby of the Lucie Stern Theatre after a recent performance of the Palo Alto Players' new production of "Wit."

After dying so thoroughly onstage in her role as Professor Vivian Bearing, eminent scholar of metaphysical poetry, the audience perhaps needed that reassurance. Jackson, now dressed in jeans and T-shirt instead of the droopy hospital gown she wore onstage, seemed entirely restored to the regular world -- except for her head, shaved bare for the part. This was a striking clue to her level of commitment to the role.

Despite her rapid recovery offstage, "Wit's" influence must stay with her long after the final applause, as it does for anyone watching Margaret Edson's Pulitzer Prize-winning play.

From the start, Jackson engages the audience by sharing her travails with mordant humor. She does so in a luminous performance, much of which seems to be conveyed through her eyes. Her expression is matched by the flawless clarity of her speech, spoken by a character who has lived her whole life through words.

"It is not my intention to give away the plot, but I think I die in the end," Vivian states matter-of-factly near the beginning. Mercifully, this play about terminal cancer is powerfully funny -- a contradiction that underlines the main conceit of this play.

"My treatment imperils my health -- herein lies the paradox," declares Vivian, who is undergoing aggressive chemotherapy. "John Donne would have reveled in it."

The professor is referring to the 16th-century metaphysical poet known for his brilliant use of paradox, whose Holy Sonnets have been the focus of her life's work. Donne is the embodiment of wit and the play bristles with paradox, both literary and living.

Despite the intellectual trappings, the play is about universal themes of kindness as well as mortality. It takes place on a shimmering set designed by Jay Lasnik that, in combination with skillful lighting by Chris Karabats, is suggestive both of stark hospital rooms and "the ambiguities and shifting awareness" Vivian describes when referring to her life in literature. The billowing curtains open to reveal a doctor with his clipboard, or a phalanx of medical students, or a wheeled hospital bed whose metallic underpinnings look much like a torture device.

Through them come Vivian's oncologist, Harvey Kelekian, (John Musgrave), whose professional detachment is highlighted by their simultaneous monologues when the diagnosis is first announced, neatly conveying the disconnect between doctor and patient.

The manifest embarrassment of young research fellow Jason Posner (Anil Margsahayam) -- who once took Bearing's class on metaphysical poetry -- at giving his ex-professor a gynecological examination elicits sympathy at first. The audience seems to sense before she does that Jason is becoming the embodiment of professional tactlessness and inhumanity.

"Excellent command of details," Vivian says of Jason, whose primary focus as scholar and teacher leads her to value this quality above all others. Meanwhile Jason's verdict on her class is less complimentary: "It was more like boot camp than literature."

With the balance of power shifting as she grows weaker, Vivian is only too poignantly aware that the boot is now on the other foot. As medical students pile into her room for Grand Rounds, she tells the audience, "Once I did the teaching -- now I am taught."

Though the story unfolds briskly onstage, the play focuses on internal rather than external movement. Words are its currency rather than choreography, and the admirable clarity of the cast keeps the themes singing, with the lion's share of verbal acrobatics going to Jackson. Parallels between Vivian's own highly regarded research in metaphysical poetry and her doctors' research into an aggressive drug treatment are startling. Words like "test" and "degrading" gain double meanings, their ambiguities jumping into sharp relief as they are applied both to the rigors of being a student of literature and a subject of medical research.

In this context, a lesson on why punctuation matters so much in metaphysical poetry is riveting. Using the last lines of Donne's most famous sonnet as an example, Jackson uses gesture as much as words to explain the profound difference in meaning between a comma and a semicolon -- to comic effect.

In the end, though, emotion takes over. During a series of flashbacks from her life, an acute student points out that Donne sidestepped the reality of death by hiding behind words and wit. It becomes increasingly clear that Vivian, who has devoted her life to studying and teaching his work, has been doing much the same. As her disease progresses, she is eventually unable to avoid a fundamental truth: all the success, complexity and brilliance in the world won't parse death away.

"I feel so much ... but can't find the language," she says towards the end, when pain is getting the upper hand.

It's at this point that nurse Susie Monahan (Deborah Napier), who considers herself a dummy for not understanding Vivian's relentless wordplay, comes magnificently to the fore. Up to now the one who quietly adjusts the IV, she proves to be the only person who has the wit to know what to do. Her instinctive kindness and care is portrayed beautifully in a long moment that brought the audience to an almost palpable stillness.

It all leads up to a searing indictment of hospital attitudes toward natural death, and the dominance of Code Blue protocols. Played in mime-like fashion, it draws attention to the brutality of an over-technologized medical culture and the failure to pay attention to the patient's inner life (what Donne called the "Soule").

This unexpected climax brings with it a physical sense of shock. A brief moment of redemption hauls the play back from the edge of despair. But this production, directed by Mike Ward, wrings every bit of pain -- and catharsis -- out of a brilliant piece of theater.

What: "Wit," presented by Palo Alto Players. Written by Margaret Edson, "Wit" won the Pulitzer Prize. Where: Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road in Palo Alto When: Show times are 8 p.m. on Friday and Saturday and 2:30 p.m. on Sunday. Cost: Tickets are $22 for Sunday performances; $24 for Wednesday and Thursday performances; $25 for Friday evenings; $27 for Saturday evenings. Students and seniors receive a $3 discount for Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday performances. Call: 329-0891 or visit

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