Wit at the Players’ Ring honors life and death

For whom the bell tolls
By MEGAN GRUMBLING  |  May 23, 2012

FACING DEATH But not alone.
An array of disciplines have taken on the puzzle of life and death. Both oncology and the sonnet, for example, inform one woman's struggle for life in Margaret Edson's Wit. This Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, in which a scholar reconsiders the uses and the limits of knowledge, runs at the Players' Ring, in Portsmouth, where Joi Smith's excellent production has the elegance and economy of well-crafted verse.

Sharp-witted professor of 17th-century British poetry Dr. Vivian Bearing (the impeccable Constance Witman) has spent most of her adulthood deconstructing life and death in the language of John Donne's "Holy Sonnets," a sequence of metaphysical poems (which includes the famous "Death Be Not Proud"). Unmarried, childless, known as a severe teacher, and lacking even an emergency contact, she has devoted her life to the rigorous scholarship of poetics. When she is diagnosed with Stage IV ovarian cancer, and agrees to a strenuous experimental treatment, it is her life with language that she reflects on — words, the minutest punctuation, and the uses of verbal wit. Navigating treatment and recalling her life in academia, she critically parses the words "insidious" and "pernicious" when they are used to describe her cancer and her treatment's side-effects. She recalls being lambasted, as a grad student, over the placement of a semi-colon. She wonders over a line of Donne in which, she mulls, "nothing but a comma separates death from life everlasting."

Edson poses the precision and intricacy of Vivian's discipline against those of the medical science meant to save her. Her oncologist, Dr. Jason Posner (the fine Danica Carlson; in an interesting casting choice, Smith has made the script's male doctor a woman, and its female nurse a man), who is also a former student, pursues her experimental research with the same single-mindedness as Vivian has her scholarship— and at the same expense of empathy. She regards Vivian less as a human being than a vessel of symptoms and cell counts, much as Vivian has mastered poetics without exploring poetry as a means of communion. The similarity of their approaches is not lost on Vivian: At one point, after being thoroughly examined in a barrage of tests and tubes, she dryly remarks, "Now I know how poems feel."

On a stage bare but for Vivian's bed and medical accoutrements, Smith's direction beautifully dramatizes the parallel between the literary and medical disciplines and the self-reflection it provokes in Vivian. Carlson's Jason is intensely cool, terse, and utterly competent; she speaks to Vivian in quick, clipped syllables and unapologetically rote tones — that is to say, Jason is brilliant, but she has no bedside manner at all. Her affect contrasts pointedly with that of Vivian's funny and hugely empathetic nurse, Scottie (Todd Fernald, with marvelous warmth), who seems almost to vibrate in his sensitivity to — and caring for — Vivian's physical and emotional states.

And Witman is simply exquisite as the accomplished and fiercely intellectual scholar. She dramatizes Vivian's physical downfall with restraint, a wry and musical repartee, and, of course, a sterling wit. In her reflections and memories, with breathtaking slowness, she reveals the softness in the gestalt of a woman long enameled: Her childhood joy in knowing words, her awe at Donne's phrase in her mouth — "Death, thou shalt die" — as she knows herself so close to the metaphysical mystery.

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