SAN FRANCISCO – Margaret Edson’s rich and powerful 1999 Pulitzer Prize-winning play “Wit” opened last week at San Francisco’s Curran Theater in a strong touring production starring Judith Light, best known from television’s “Who’s the Boss?”
Centered around Light’s very moving performance, “Wit” tells a powerful and, yes, funny story about a brilliant, highly regarded, arrogant, 50-year-old literature scholar who, after a successful, independent professional life, suddenly finds herself diagnosed with stage four metastatic ovarian cancer, and facing death.
Directly addressing the audience, the sarcastic, funny, impatient, judgmental Vivian Bearing (Light), two hours before her death, invites the audience to hear her cancer story in a series of flashbacks over past last eight months.
Profound loss of control, by someone who lived for control, and the humiliation over the deterioration of her body, force Bearing to a dramatic re-evaluation of the meaning of her life.
She is reluctant to do this. And, in the end, she is not happy with what she sees.
A researcher herself, Bearing agrees to participate in the cancer physicians’ cutting-edge research and therapy program. Although she has trouble dealing with the arrogant doctors, she slowly realizes they are a reflection of herself.
Bearing is a scholar of 17th century English poetry with a focus on the religious and metaphysical poetry of John Donne, whose work examines connections among life, death, and life-after-death.
In the play’s central conceit, the arrogance of Bearing’s professional expertise in the metaphysics of immortality is contrasted with her human vulnerability in the face of actual death.
An insightful parallel is drawn between the poetry scholar’s interest in Donne’s desire to understand mortality and eternal life, and the medical scholars’ desire to understand what they perceive to be the immortality of cancer.
Ultimately, “Wit” is about an arrogant person who learns that humanity, humility, compassion and vulnerability are more important than brains and material success.
“Wit” is also about learning to listen to other people, and about the emptiness of a life lived outside of compassionate relationships.
Despite its morbid-sounding story, the play is quite funny. Bearing’s angry, sarcastic, acerbic tongue, and her intolerance of the world of nitwits she perceives to be around her, make for much humor.
If “Wit” has one limitation, it’s that it makes its point about Bearing’s ironic and limited apprehension of the world over and over. The message gets heavy handed and didactic at moments.
But this is a small deficiency, in comparison to the otherwise powerful achievement of the play.
The performers in this show are pros, and they all do nice work. Brian Smiar doubles as the arrogant, self-absorbed cancer physician attending Bearing, as well as her father in a flashback.
Daniel Sarnelli is funny and frightening as Bearing’s former student, now a medical resident more interested in disease research than in the people who have the diseases.
Lisa Tharps, as a nurse attending Bearing, proves to be the transforming sympathetic agent to Bearing’s emotional discovery process.
The production is vividly directed by Leah C. Gardiner, based on original direction by Derek Anson Jones. The design team of Myung Hee Cho (scenic), Ilona Somogyi (costumes) and Michael Chybowski (lighting) do some great work on a stark white set that displays occasional distinct colorful moments.
For example, Bearing wears white hospital garb with a red baseball cap to cover her head, which is bald from chemotherapy.
Further, the largely white set, defined by white curtains drawn one way or another to define hospital room spaces, occasionally has its neutral color design changed by lighting to, say, hospital green, to establish mood and place.
Good new plays don’t come along very often. If you enjoy theater, “Wit” is one to go see.
“Wit” runs through May 28 at the Curran Theater, 445 Geary (at Mason), San Francisco. For ticket and information, call 415-551-2000, or visit www.bestofbroad