Review: Bravery is the Soul of "Wit"

Wit

Written by Margaret Edson

Directed by Brynn Asha Walker

Presented by The Seeing Place Theater at The Paradise Factory

64 East 4th Street, Manhattan, NYC

December 30, 2021-January 16, 2022

Janice Hall, Erin Cronican, & Christopher James Murray. Photo by Russ Rowland
The Seeing Place Theater (TSP), a group dedicated to "actor-driven, social justice theater" that inspires audiences to action, begins its twelfth season with a riveting production of Margaret Edson's Pulitzer Prize-winning play Wit. Wit's narrator-protagonist Vivian Bearing (Erin Cronican) holds a doctorate in 17th-century English literature, and her research focuses on John Donne, especially on his sequence of Holy Sonnets, composed in 1609-1610 and circulated in manuscript. Firmly established in her career at 50, Bearing has been diagnosed with Stage IV ovarian cancer, and the certainties of scansion seem both more and less important than ever before as she brings her intelligence, anger, and humor to bear on reckoning with her life and her death. In the hands of TSP, Wit’s balance of pain and humor, of humanity and rigor, is handled deftly, and the result is a strikingly original and compelling staging of a play with which audiences may be familiar.

Bearing says that Donne's work is characterized by outbreaks of wit, a flexible, multi-layered concept, and that work acts as both a touchstone for and a parallel to Bearing. Donne's Holy Sonnets display what Dr. Jason Posner (Robin Friend), a former student of Bearing's and current research fellow under her physician Dr. Kelekian (Christopher James Murray), cleverly calls "salvation anxiety" (more than a decade later, a severe illness would prompt Donne to produce the further meditations on mortality of Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions). The play raises the possibility that the complexity of Donne's sonnets function as a barrier against such anxiety. Does Donne hide behind wit? Does Bearing? Bearing from the first uses her literary training as a defense and a way of approaching/coping, and certainly rigor, that academic favorite, plays such a role, which becomes increasingly clear as she reflects upon her past devotion to being uncompromising in her life and work. Bearing's scholarly mentor, E. M. Ashford (Janice Hall), emphasizes detailed, painstaking labor in her approach to Donne, and while such an approach may lead, via punctuation analysis, to insights such as the reduction of death to a "comma" in Holy Sonnet 10, it also, as Posner, who has his own issues with emotional connection, observes, takes the poetry out of poetry.
Robin Friend & Erin Cronican. Photo by Russ Rowland
As Bearing undergoes experimental treatment that requires eight cycles of a particularly brutal combination of chemotherapy drugs, she experiences a loss of control and authority that is painfully and disconcertingly at odds with her identity as a successful scholar (notably, in some moments, she speaks over medical doctors to address the audience, wrestling at least narrative control back to herself). Her name is apposite to the humiliations and tedium that she must endure as a patient, a role in which she herself becomes an object of study, as we see in a scene in which Posner interviews her and again and more forcefully in a late scene in which Susie Monahan, RN (Brynn Asha Walker), with whom Bearing makes a late bid for human connection, must fight for Bearing's bodily autonomy to be respected. Bearing's interview with Posner provides just one example of the way in which humor and frustration seem, for her and as Cronican’s performance makes clear, to be constantly co-present. This extends even to the doubleness of the phrase "immortality in culture," defined by Posner as the ability of lab-cultured cancer cells endlessly to replicate, but also alluding to the sort of immortality available via art (and perhaps even, if less likely, its explication in all those scholarly monographs and peer-reviewed articles).
Erin Cronican & Brynn Asha Walker. Photo by Russ Rowland
The Seeing Place gives Wit an intimate staging, with seats on three sides of a stage space demarcated by artfully partial wood flooring and dominated by a hospital bed. The fourth wall serves as a space for projections, designed by Phoenix Lion, of Donne's and Bearing's words, from short and simple fragments to dense patterns of arcs and whorls. Walker’s kind but fierce Susie Monahan is the nurse we should all have advocating for us as we die, and Friend’s arrogant young Dr Posner is wrapped in complicating layers of ambiguity. However, it is Cronican’s performance that is the center of TSP’s Wit; the actor has herself been battling Stage IV breast cancer since 2018, which brings an added poignancy to her performance, but it is clear that this is not performance as therapy: Cronican masterfully embodies Bearing’s loss of power, reflections on a rigid life devoted to scholarship above all else, and awareness that behind all research, not just that into cancer, there are humans, humans like John Donne, humans who are dying, humans who are frightened or lost, humans who deny Death its power and pride.

TSP is a theater collective impacted by the experiences of each of its members: in addition to Cronican, Friend is also a cancer survivor. In a gesture that breaks down boundaries of stage and performance, audience members are invited to respond on a 3x5 card, which will be added to the memorial wall near the theater's entrance, to how cancer has touched their lives, and they can also purchase a memorial candle, for a donation of $1 or more, which will be lit throughout the show's run. The program notes that "wit" "originally meant witness," and this Wit can indeed feel like a collective act of bearing (pun intended?) witness to something that is simultaneously visceral and intellectual.


-John R. Ziegler and Leah Richards

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