Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

April 25, 2016


Playhouse on Park, West Hartford CT
through May 8, 2016
by Barbara Stroup

Playhouse on Park continues its season in a serious play about death with “WIT.” Wearing a hospital gown throughout, Dr. Vivian Bearing hears her diagnosis, receives her treatments, and spends her final days in the sterile University Hospital Cancer Center. Dr. Bearing tells us the conclusion at the very beginning; it’s how she traverses those final days that give the audience dramatic stoicism, obsessiveness, some humor, and finally exceeding tenderness.

Photo by Meredith Atkinson
Dr. Bearing is a proud and solitary academician who cannot let go of her fascination with words, even as she receives her diagnosis of terminal illness. The audience listens as she parses her favorite poems by John Donne, as well as the medical terms favored by two very detached physicians. Much like her in affect, a former student played by Tim Hackney is her ‘research fellow.’ The intimacy of touch during a pelvic examination almost undoes him with nerves; but his lack of bedside manner is much like his teacher’s prior lack of warmth with her students.

Flashbacks reveal snippets of Dr. Bearing’s past as she declines, even during treatment with massive doses of experimental medication, and as she absorbs the verdict that nothing has helped. Elizabeth Lande in the title role acts this descent with poignancy, and her pain is primal and chilling. Warmth and kindness are exuded by Suzy, her nurse, played by Chuja Seo, and ease Dr. Bearing’s lonely passage into a morphine-induced silence. An especially caring moment has them laughing together, even after a discussion about signing a DNR (Do Not Resuscitate) order. The contrast between Suzy and the other medical staff could serve as a lesson for all hospital personnel.

Most poignant are the moments of a final bedside visit Dr. Bearing receives from a former professor, convincingly played by Waltrudis Buck. Without sighs, or head shakes or other ‘business,’ she gives Dr. Bearing exactly what she needs at the end, a monumental contrast with her medical professional “caretakers.” Writer Margaret Edson received a well-deserved Pulitzer Prize for this play, and the spare, tight production in West Hartford honors it well.