Monday, April 25, 2016

Theater Review: Wit -- Playhouse on Park

Harrison Greene, Elizabeth Lande, Sara Detrik, Tim Hackney, Julia Ekwall. Photo: Meredith Atkinson
Finding Poetry and Wit  in the Last Stanza of Life
By Lauren Yarger
Margaret Edson’s 1999 Pulitzer-Prize-winning play is no easy night at the theater.  Especially if you or someone you love has gone through cancer treatment in a hospital.

But don’t let the subject matter keep you from taking in Stevie Zimmerman’s sensitively directed production  at Playhouse on Park or you will miss a moving performance by  Elizabeth Lande and a few lessons about how the smallest kindnesses can have the biggest impact.

Lande is Dr. Vivian Bearing, a poetry professor who finds herself in experimental treatments to fight end-stage ovarian cancer. Always in control and demanding the most of herself and her students, Vivian suddenly finds herself in a scary, lonely world totally beyond her control.

Her oncologist, Dr. Kelekian (David Gautschy) is almost happy about her condition – if she can get through eight full doses of chemo, she’ll be the first and he will be able to write up her case. While he attempts to hide his excitement, his Fellow, Dr. Jason Posner (Tim Hackney), who happens to be a former student in Vivian’s class, barely disguises his lack of feeling or empathy for his patient. He prefers research to humanity, he tells her bluntly.

Vivian steals herself for the difficult road ahead and seeks solace in the poetry of John Dunne, who is her specialty, and his metaphysical wit. Ironically, he probably is best known for “Death Be Not Proud” and the use of punctuation in the last line of that work, “And death shall be no more, Death, thou shalt die,” gives Vivian lots to think about (hence the semicolon often used when the title of the play is listed as W;t.

As the doctors increasingly are interested only in her stats, Vivian, without family or any close friends, finds that she needs someone to care. Help comes from a kind nurse, Suzie Monahan (Chuja Seo), who provides come companionship and tells Vivian the truth about what to expect. She advocates on her patient’s behalf with the doctors trying to get them to reduce the dose of chemo and make her more comfortable.

Vivian also finds some comfort from her old teacher, Dr. E. M. Ashford (Waltrudis Buck) who shows what a difference someone can make by going out of her way and offering a few small kindnesses.

The action unfolds on Emily Nichols’ minimal set (complete with sliding panels that proved difficult to operate for several cast members) where hospital scenes are mixed with vignettes from Vivian’s past as she drafts a play about her experience. Harrison Greene, Sara Detrik and Julia Ekwall round out the cast as students and interns. Zimmerman adds a nice touch with scene changes occurring with props being moved in and out by folks dressed in hospital scrubs (Kate Bunce designs the show’s costumes).

The subject matter makes this a difficult almost two hours without intermission which can drag a bit (and the theater recommends it for ages 14 and up due to brief non-sexual nudity.) Edson captures some of the isolation felt by patients in the hospital as well as the uncaring attitudes of some of the care providers (as well as their incompetence). She also captures the emotions of a woman trying to be strong and brave when she increasingly doesn’t feel that way.

Seo gives a genuine performance making us hope we’ll get her as our nurse if we ever end up in a hospital – and Hackney creates such a self-centered, uncaring character that we want to go up on stage and slap him because he reminds us of unfortunate real encounters with doctors more concerned about self-aggrandizement than what is best for their patients. Buck at first seems awkward in her role as Dr. Asher former student in the hospital.

An observation: I previously had thought the play poignant, but watching it again after having spent numerous hours at the hospital with my husband during his cancer treatments, it hit me unexpectedly and hard with its realism, so be warned.

Wit runs through May 8 at Playhouse on Park, 244 Park Rd, West Hartford. Performances are Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 pm; Friday and Saturday at 8 pm; Sunday at 2 pm with additional matinees that vary. Tickets $22.50-$35. Additional special ticket offers are available: 860-523-5900 x10;

Additional Credits:
Lighting Design by Marcus Abbott, Sound Design by Joel Abbott, Properties Management by Pamela A. Lang.

Also at Playhouse on Park: (in case you need some humor to counter Wit's drama):
The final show in Playhouse on Park's Season Seven Comedy Night Series is Poppy Champlin and Mike Egan Saturday, May 21 with two shows at 7  and 10 pm. Tickets $15; BYOB: 860-523-5900 x10;

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Lauren Yarger with playwright Alfred Uhry at the Mark Twain House. Photo: Jacques Lamarre)
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