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A CurtainUp Berkshires Review

Death, be not proud, though some have callèd thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou think'st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which yet thy pictures be,
Much pleasure, then from thee much more, must low
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones and soul's delivery.

—John Donne
Dr. Vivian Bearing is a professor who has distinguished herself as a 17th century literary scholar specializing in the Holy Sonnets of John Donne. But as Frances West, who brilliantly portrays her in the Shakespeare & Company' . production puts it she is now distinguishing herself with illness -- to be exact, advanced metastasized ovarian cancer. I am not giving away the denouement of this painfully authentic yet believe-it-or-not funny play when I tell you that the physical battle in which she is "at best an unwilling accomplice" is a losing one. The remarkable Ms. West takes the audience into her confidence as soon as the lights go up, noting wryly "The Faerie Queen this is not."

Bald pate beneath turned-around schoolboy cap and tethered to one of those hospital walkers with tubes dripping the required chemical supplement of the hour, the woman who eases us into accompanying her increasingly painful journey is still very much Doctor Bearing (an apt name when you consider the way she bears up under her ordeal). Her introductory tour guide monologue is peppered with references to Shakespeare as well as the love of her life, Donne's "itchy outbreaks of far-fetced wit."

It is exactly because she is so bright and cool, "a tough bird," that she submits her body as the text for Dr. Harvey Kelekian's (Dennis Krausnick) experimental chemotherapy protocol. It is also because she's so bright that she transforms her darkest moments into caustically trenchant observations. There's a scene, for example, in which she has us share her detached amusement as the focus of the hospital's Grand Round routine. Her remark about how Donne would have reveled in the paradox of the treatment that imperils the patient's health brings to mind an actual quote: "I observe the physician with the same diligence as the disease" ("Devotions").

For all the wit, (playwright Margaret Edson's, Ms. West's and, of course, John Donne's), this is not an easy play and its no-punches-pulled reality may be too hard for some audiences to deal with. And yet, if you can overcome your instinctive urge to distance yourself from the subject that touches all of us at some level, you will be richly rewarded by this thought provoking examination not just of death but the way we deal with life and pain. The connection made between the life of the intellect to the exclusion of warm personal relationships and that of medical researchers should make this play a textbook lesson for all medical professionals. The interchange between Bearing and Kelekian can also serve as something of a cautionary tale.

Wit is essentially a one-woman show, an interchange between that one woman and the audience. However, the seven member cast (some in several parts) adds greatly to the overall texture. The ensemble players take center stage only intermittently but Director Daniela Varon keeps them visible at the side of the stage throughout the intermissionless 95 minutes. Two of these actors are no less than the company's dynamic artistic director Tina Packer and co-founder Dennis Krausnick. Ms. Packer makes just two cameo appearances but they carry a big emotional bang. In the first came she's an early academic mentor, in the second a loving friend who knows when a simple children's book has as much to say as the erudite Donne.

Mr. Krausnick ably portrays the doctor who heads the research group. John Beale is a compelling scientific opposite of Bearing's single-minded devotion to literature, especially since he once took a course with her (in which she now ironically wishes that she'd given him an A instead of A-). Elizabeth Aspenlieder is at once tough and caring as the nurse whose compasssion proves more important than the intellect Professor Bearing has always valued above all else.

While I'm am a great fan of Katherine Chalfant who is slated to don Dr. Bearing's hospital gown during the Fall '98 Off-Broadway season, it's hard to imagine a production better than the one offered by Shakespeare & Company. The thrilling, (an adjective I rarely use), acting of Ms. West is made doubly poignant by the fact that she is playing this role in the face of more chemotherapy treatments for her own recurring breast cancer. A brave, memorable actress for a brave, memorable role.

To end as we began:
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; death,
though shalt die.

by Margaret Edson
Directed by Daniela Varon
Starring: Frances West as Dr Vivian Bearing; with Tina Packer, Dennis Krausnick, Elizabeth Aspenlieder, John Beale, Marybeth Bentwood, Josef Hansen and Marc Scipione
Sets: Kiki Smith
Costumes: Govane Lohbauer
Lights: Stephen Ball
Sound: Mark Huang
Stables Theatre, The Mount 2 Plunket St., Lenox, MA (413/637-3353
8/11/98-9/06/98; opening 8/16/98
Reviewed 8/19/98 by Elyse Sommer
Addendums about this play: Wit is fiction based in part on the first-time playwright's experiences working at the AIDS Inpatient Unit of the National Institutes of Health. First produced in 1995 by South Coast Repertory it won six LA Drama Critics awards, including Best World Premiere, as well and the 1997 New York and LA Critics Awards for Best New Play. The play's East Coast premiere production at the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, CT will be produced this fall by the Manhattan Class Company in New York with the same cast which includes Kathleen Chalfant.

©Copyright 1998, Elyse Sommer.
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