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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

it.

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

exceptionally

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

Square

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

premiere

at George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick where performances

continue

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

experimental

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"

chemotherapy

regimen on her body and spirit, as she slowly gives in to

ever-increasing

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

meaningful

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

concerning

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

demanding

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.

Although

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

Bearing.

Wearing only a hospital gown, bald and eyebrowless, with a

well-sculpted

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

emotional

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

Sommers

as Susie, the doltish nurse who becomes Vivian’s confidant. Like an

overworked nurse, she goes through her motions in a workmanlike

manner.

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

lighting.

Any hints of color, or ambient sounds are appropriately impersonal,

and unobtrusive.

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

the year.

— Jack Florek

Wit, George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston Avenue,

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.

Top Of Page
Participate Please

Kelsey Review, a community-based journal that showcases

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.

New Jersey Historical Commission sponsors the Garvin

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:

gwright@admin.sos.state.nj.us

Center for Talented Youth at Johns Hopkins University

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.

The William Trent House in Trenton offers middle school

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.

Top Of Page
Volunteer Call

Retired and Senior Volunteer Program of Middlesex County

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.

Trenton Museum Society seeks volunteers to be docents at

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.

Bucks County Audubon Society needs volunteers to help

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

215-297-5880.

Partners in Recovery, a program of Catholic Charities, is

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.

Taste of the Nation presented by American Express and

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

609-275-0819.

The Stony Brook Gallery seeks artists working in paint,

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.

Donations Wanted

Check-Out Hunger is a Mercer County campaign to raise

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.

March of Dimes Pumpkin Patch returns to improve the health

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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