I missed La Bodega Productions' first show, a reprise of Kafka's The Trial, so I wasn't sure what to expect from their current production of Margaret Edson's Wit. All I knew was that I was less than enthused about spending my Friday night watching a play about cancer. And while it's true that watching Wit completely ruined my appetite for weekend carousing, it's equally true that Wit is one of the few Portland productions I've seen that has compelled me to return for a repeat viewing.
With an adaptation of Kafka as their first production, and this Pulitzer Prize-winning drama as their second, La Bodega isn't taking any chances with their material. Prudence serves them well, at least in this case: Wit is a funny, moving, philosophical script, and La Bodega's investment in the material pays off.
Vivian (JoAnn Grandon) is a professor of 17th Century poetry, with an emphasis on the metaphysical poems of John Donne. Recently having been diagnosed with advanced ovarian cancer, Vivian's doctors convince her to undergo eight cycles of intense chemotherapy. It is understood by the doctors—and suggested to Vivian and the audience—that this treatment is not expected to save Vivian's life; rather, her doctors believe that by subjecting her to this particularly brutal regimen, they might collect data which will be useful to researchers.
The bulk of the play takes place in a hospital room (the setting is indicated on the barebones set by a hospital bed and a stool), as Vivian reflects on her career, her condition, and her life. Vivian may be a bedridden cancer patient, but she is in some ways only marginally sympathetic. Flashbacks illustrate her take-no-prisoners style of teaching, while her incessant monologuing paints a clear picture of a brilliant, articulate woman who has nonetheless alienated her students and fellow staff to the extent that she gets no visitors in the hospital (she even speculates that some of her colleagues might be anticipating her death).
Vivian is attended to by an ambitious young fellow, Jason (Chris Graham), who is a brilliant researcher, but clumsy and short with patients. He's only interested in Vivian insofar as her case might provide him with new data; his bedside manner is consistently horrible. He ignores Vivian's struggle with her rapidly diminishing mortality in order to study her charts and speculate about the value of her case to future research.
Vivian has spent her entire career deconstructing poetry; now she is being picked apart like a poem—and, as in Donne's poetry, there are no easy answers or ready solutions. Donne's work (at least according to playwright Edson) couches the riddles of life and death in deliberately tricky, obfuscating terms, whereby deft wordplay masks confusion and fear; his work comes irrevocably to bear on Vivian's own situation. It's a complicated relationship, but it's clear that director Shawn Cates truly understands his material. La Bodega's cast and crew do exactly right by Edson's brutal, elegant script, maximizing emotional impact without sacrificing clarity or humor.
Though the play is quite wrenching, the actors avoid histrionics, playing it with a refreshing lack of fuss. Grandon gives a stellar performance as Vivian, developing a captivating character who is at once defensive and vulnerable, with a shining intelligence and sly, cutting wit.
Another standout performance comes from Aislinn Cartmill-Arnett, as Susie, Vivian's nurse—a "nice" girl whose simplicity and directness counter Vivian's brainiac tendencies. (Susie may not know what "soporific" means, but she knows when Vivian needs a popsicle—and ultimately, she's the only person who respects Vivian's dying wishes.) Cartmill-Artnett is understated and believable, helping ground the otherwise cerebral production.
Even though Vivian is completely up front about her condition, informing the audience almost immediately that she will soon be dying from cancer, foreknowledge of the end doesn't make the emotional impact of this play any easier to bear. There was some serious sniffling from the audience by the time curtain call rolled around; if there were dry eyes in the house, mine were not among them. So there's crying, yes, but there's plenty of laughing and thinking as well. It's a powerful script that aims to reach the audience on many levels, and La Bodega makes sure that Wit does just that.