“Wit” chronicles a woman’s struggle with terminal ovarian cancer. But the play isn’t about death: It’s about life.
Tonight, the University of Wisconsin-Baraboo/Sauk County opens its production of Margaret Edson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning drama. It’s about an exacting literature professor facing not only her cancer, but the atmosphere of indifference that can envelope a busy hospital. Edson, drawing on her experience as a clerk in an oncology ward, serves as a reporter of the courage, coldness and compassion marking the end of life.
Director Lauren Love said professor Vivian Bearing’s diagnosis moves her from a position of independent authority – as an expert on the works of 17th century poet John Donne – to a place of dependency. “She moves from self-enforced isolation to forced reliance on others,” Love said. “As the teacher Vivian Bearing learns this lesson of human connection, she moves into a kind of grace.”
Bearing narrates her journey with disarming humor and draws strength from the wit of Donne’s metaphysical poetry. She is played with an entrancing blend of fearful dignity and dry jocularity by Baraboo actress Molly Arbogast.
The actress “undertakes Vivian’s journey supported by one of the most solid and caring ensembles I have worked with as a director,” Love said. “Watching each actor help to enable Molly’s exquisite performance, and in turn the character Vivian’s awakening, impresses me as another expression of the play’s message about human connection and compassion.”
Arbogast said it isn’t easy balancing the harsh facts of her character’s experience – her cancer diagnosis and her sometimes uncaring treatment at the hands of medical researchers – with her passionate need to share her life’s lessons with the audience. “Moving between these two aspects of Vivian requires shifts of emotion, energy and focus of 180 degrees,” Arbogast said. “Of course, this is an actor's dream: to have this kind of a challenge to sink her teeth into.”
During her journey, the classroom taskmaster who lives alone and has no family – she doesn’t even have an emergency contact – truly learns the meaning of Donne’s words:
“No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.”
The play spurs rumination on the state of American health care and, although published in 1999 before the advent of social media, delivers a message about the importance of human interaction. “I hope that audiences can't help but be affected by the treatment that Vivian receives in the hospital -- both by those who see her as little more than research, and those who truly show her compassion and warmth,” Arbogast said. “But even bigger than that, I hope that people watching the show find resonance in the need for personal connection.”
Books are great, and computers and smartphones have their place. But they don’t satisfy our innate need for community.
As Bearing “goes through this ultimate passage, she gains this insight,” Love said. “’Wit’ gives us a message not about death, but about how we might conduct fulfilling lives.”