Corrections or additions?
This review by Jack Florek was prepared for the October 25, 2000
edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Review: `Wit’ at George Street
How are you feeling today?" In the opening line
of "Wit," Professor Vivian Bearing asks the audience this
simple question. Of course, she does not expect an answer, because
to a large extent she already has all the answers. She looks straight
at us, tells us this is her play and that she is not going to survive
When Margaret Edson first wrote "Wit," in 1991, it was over
two-and-a-half hours long. But after some intense development, and
an extensive series of cuts and rewrites, "Wit" was trimmed
to its current 90-minute length, performed without an intermission
(those with unreliable bladders be forewarned). The result is an
well-crafted play that mixes powerfully evocative dialogue with an
abundant array of theatrical tricks.
Originally opening at the South Coast Repertory Company in Costa Mesa,
California, in 1995, "Wit" moved to Off-Broadway’s Union
Theater where it became one of New York’s hottest tickets. Since then
it has enjoyed rave reviews and won many awards, including the 1999
Pulitzer Prize. "Wit" is currently making its New Jersey
at George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick where performances
to November 12.
The story is deceptively simple. Vivian Bearing is a proud, sometimes
overbearing, but exceedingly clever, 50-year-old university professor
who reluctantly agrees to undergo aggressive chemotherapy for her
advanced ovarian cancer. Although the treatment is considered
and risky, her doctors consider the "full dose" treatment
as her only hope for survival.
Through the next 90 minutes we watch Vivian journey through eight
months of debilitating medical procedures, enduring various pelvic
exams, the insertion of a catheter, and assorted other dehumanizing
treatments. We also witness the ravages the "full dose"
regimen on her body and spirit, as she slowly gives in to
pain, violent nausea, and the recognition of the inevitability of
her own death.
Conversely, as her physical situation worsens, and for the first time
in her life, Vivian begins to develop the ability to achieve
personal relationships with other people — in this case doctors,
nurses, and other hospital personnel. We learn that this is an aspect
of life that she never allowed herself to experience while healthy.
Although the play’s subject matter is not easy, the blow is softened
considerably by a running commentary in which Vivian repeatedly hops
from her examining table or hospital bed to offer us insights
her state of mind and body. These insights, spoken directly to the
audience, are spiced with Vivian’s endearingly sarcastic humor. There
are also a number of flashback scenes to key moments in her past,
such as the moment as a child that she discovers her love for the
power of words, or to memories from her days as an unrelentingly
teacher of the poetry of 17th-century writer John Donne.
Edson is a crafty writer. That fact that Vivian informs the audience
right off the bat that she is going to die by the end of the play
immediately relieves the us of the burden of hope, allowing compassion
and empathy to take over.
"Wit" never devolves into a voyeuristic journey because Vivian
becomes all too human to us, as her sometimes lighthearted, sometimes
snobby and antagonistic running commentary makes clear. We are allowed
to see the pain and isolation she has lived with and kept hidden from
herself all these years. Far from being the brilliant, successful,
and rather condescending educator she has projected to the outside
world, we experience Vivian as emotionally wounded, a person who used
her intellectual brilliance and love for words as a hiding place in
which she has spent ducking from the ickiness of human feeling.
the play’s closing moments are maudlin, so is dealing with death.
In many ways, "Wit" is a one-actor show, and
therefore its success or failure rests squarely on the woman playing
the lead role. And here Suzzanne Douglas is brilliant as Vivian
Wearing only a hospital gown, bald and eyebrowless, with a
body and a rough hewn shape to her skull, she is haunting and ageless
— like a rock with eyes. Douglas’ performance is relentless, like
a piece of great music, exquisitely timed, building and receding,
with touches of silence, before reforming to the create the next
explosion. She is an extremely gutsy actor, and her performance here
is a textbook example of great acting.
Given the preponderance of attention focused on Vivian Bearing, it
is not surprising that the play’s other characters are thinner. Scott
Andrew Harrison plays the polite, but data-obsessed, Doctor Jason
Posner, with the kind of bland predictability that such a character
would seem to suggest. He does not disappoint. Likewise for Jodi
as Susie, the doltish nurse who becomes Vivian’s confidant. Like an
overworked nurse, she goes through her motions in a workmanlike
Ted Sod’s direction is deft and successful, creating the stage on
which Vivian Bearing’s star can shine, without a lot of misdirection
or muddlement. He has a nice sense of the emotional effects of silence
on stage, creating long moments of noiseless kindnesses between Vivian
and Susie. These moments, coming as they do in the last third of the
play when Vivian’s health has worsened, seem oddly poignant.
Ted Simpson’s set design is sparse, clinical, and barebones, adding
to the aura of helplessness and desperation that has become Vivian’s
world. Likewise are Chris Bailey’s sound design and Joe Saint’s
Any hints of color, or ambient sounds are appropriately impersonal,
Make no mistake about it, George Street’s "Wit" is entirely
successful, underscoring the unique possibilities of theater as an
artform, and melding the beauty of words with a sensitively rendered
presentation. This is certain to be one of the area’s best shows of
— Jack Florek
New Brunswick, 732-246-7717. Winner of the 1999 Pulitzer for drama,
with Suzzanne Douglas as Vivian Bearing. Performances run to November
12. $24 to $40.
work by 35 talented Mercer County authors and artists, is available
free of charge at libraries and bookstores. Based at Mercer County
College, the journal receives funds from the Mercer County Cultural
and Heritage Commission and the New Jersey State Council on the Arts.
To be eligible for inclusion in the next edition, you must reside or
work in Mercer County and submit a manuscript by May 1, 2001. Contact
Robin Schore at 609-586-4800, extension 3326.
Price, an African-American history teaching prize of $1,000, awarded
to a teacher, counselor, or school librarian who has helped students
learn about African-American past and its relationship to New Jersey.
Nominations must be postmarked by December 1, 2000. For information
about the prize, contact Giles R. Wright, Director, Afro-American
History Program, New Jersey Historical Commission, P.O. Box 305,
Trenton, New Jersey 08625, phone 609-292-6062, or e-mail:
invites gifted children in grades two through eight to join the 2001
talent search. Participating students must have scored at the 97th
percentile or above on standardized tests and must take above-grade
level tests. Applications are available through school counselors or
by calling 410-516-0278. Website is www.jhu.edu/gifted.
children the opportunity to participate in an archaeological dig this
November and again in the spring. Archaeologists from Hunter Research
in Trenton will supervise shovel tests, measure record artifacts, and
preserve important evidence of day-to-day activities which took place
at the historic site. Teachers of 6th, 7th, or 8th grade classes from
public or private schools may make reservations at 609-989-3027.
is seeking volunteers to service as mentors for juveniles referred by
family court. They will work closely with the youth and his family
under the guidance and supervision of court officers. Training is
provided by family court. Call Joelyn Bobin or Milli Groves at
732-249-6330 for information.
Ellarslie, The Trenton City Museum. Volunteers will be trained to
guide 4th grade students on a museum visit including a scavenger hunt,
a craft activity, and an introduction to the Trenton potteries and
rotating fine arts exhibit. Call Eloise Bruce at 609-530-9516.
clean up litter on the portion of River Road in Upper Makefield
Township including the Washington Crossing State Park Visitor Center
on Saturday, October 28, from 10 a.m. to noon. To volunteer, call
looking for volunteers for organization devoted to mental illness and
addictions. People to do clerical work, data entry, computer training,
tutoring, marketing, and fundraising are needed. Call Carol Spiker at
609-396-9590 extension 103 to volunteer.
Foodline.com is seeking committee members for the April 30, 2001,
event at the Doral Forrestal Hostel. Share Our Strength’s Princeton
Taste of the Nation is a gourmet food and wine tasting to raise funds
for hunger relief organization. Contact Faith Bahadurian at
pencil, and mixed media whose work fits within the "Farms and Farming
in New Jersey" theme. The gallery is located in the Buttinger Nature
Center of the Stony Brook-Millstone Watershed Association on Titus
Mill Road in Hopewell Township will feature the juried art exhibition
from November 11 to January 13. All entry forms must be submitted
before Friday, November 3, 2000. For more information, call
609-737-7592, or send a self-addressed stamped envelope to: Stony
Brook Gallery-Garms, Stony Brook-Millstone Watershed Association, 312
Titus Mill Road, Pennington, NJ 08534.
funds for Mercer Street Friends Food Cooperative. Throughout the fall
months, the annual event brings together supermarket retailers, Fleet
Bank, and volunteers to raise money for hunger relief programs.
Shoppers tear off a donation slip in the amount of $1 to $5, and the
amount is added to the grocery bill by the cashier. Participating
stores include Acme, Marrazzo’s Thriftway, McCaffrey’s Market,
Pathmark, Pennington Quality Market, Shoprite, Superfresh, and Wegmans
Food Markets. Donations may also be made at Fleet Bank offices.
of mothers and babies. Bright orange paper pumpkins may be purchased
in local businesses to help face critical issues such as low
birthweight babies, access to prenatal care, and teen pregnancy. For
more information, visit www.modimes.org or call 609-655-7400.
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