It is perhaps fitting that the now final show of The Hypocrites’ season–cut short due to financial troubles–is Margaret Edson’s Pulitzer-prize-winning play, Wit. In Edson’s heartbreaking play, Dr. Vivian Bearing, a brilliant scholar of 17th century poetry whose focus is John Donne, is diagnosed with and begins to battle cancer at the age of 50. At the beginning of the play, Bearing, played with incredible nuance by Lisa Tejero, addresses the audience: “I think I die at the end.” Her life, too, will be cut short.
Wit is as much a meditation on the brevity of life as it is Vivian’s brave recounting of her battle with stage 4 metastatic ovarian cancer. Throughout her story, audiences gain brief insights into her character through fleeting memories. There is a normality to most of these memories: a student asks for an extension on an assignment; Vivian learns the meaning of the word “soporific” from her father. That these are the moments she clings to and reevaluates while contemplating her mortality in ways speaks much greater volumes to the preciousness of life than the poems she recites.
Sparsely staged in the round, Wit is visually much different from The Hypocrites’ last offering: the colorful world of Cinderella at the Theater of Potatoes. Courtney O’Neill’s scenic design captures the bleak off-whites, greys and pale blues of a Boston hospital with precise minimalism. When paired with the similar palette of Christine Pascual’s costuming, it’s an even greater testament to Dr. Bearing’s ability to find strength in such a cold and isolating world.
Bearing’s strength comes, in part, from her intellect, and the work of metaphysical poet John Donne, whose complicated poems about the nature of life, death and salvation she explicates and muses on at length to the audience. Tejero deftly navigates both the complex language of poetry and medicine throughout the play, in which she is in direct conversation with the audience for its majority. She is equally skilled at charting the demands of Vivian’s physical deterioration, replete with the requisite emotional vulnerability her treatment’s side-effects cause.
Under Marti Lyons’ intimate staging, the world of a hospital is an ever-shifting whirlwind of hospital beds, medical tests, memories and curtains. Ensemble members efficiently execute these changes in setting with clinical accuracy.
In Bearing’s uncertain world, her only constants aside from the routine of her aggressive eight-treatment regimen are her love of poetry and the connections she forms with hospital staff. One connection in particular–with a nurse named Susie–proves especially fruitful. Susie, played with genuine warmth by Adithi Chandrashekar, and Vivian share several quiet moments together, some of the play’s most touching, in fact. Lyons smartly trusts her cast to subtly play such scenes for maximum impact. A scene late in the play with an orange Popsicle is particularly affecting in its simplicity, as is the dramatic shift from monologue to silence as Vivian’s condition worsens. While Lyons’ production does feature a glimmer of hope as it ends, the headiness and weight of the play’s subject matter somewhat cloud the abrupt nature of this final moment.
Performances of Wit by The Hypocrites continue Fridays – Sundays through February 19 at The Den Theatre’s Heath Main Stage, 1329 N. Milwaukee Ave. Tickets are $36, with tickets for students priced at $15. Discounts are available for groups of eight or more. Single tickets are on sale at www.the-hypocrites.com.