Nothing can prepare you for the emotional journey you take while watching Wit. But then again, nothing can prepare you for cancer. You’ll laugh. You’ll cry. Your stomach will ache from nausea. You will experience everything that Dr. Vivian Bearing endures during her battle with fourth-stage metastatic ovarian cancer.
Bearing, a doctor of 17th-century poetry with an emphasis on John Donne, defines the word independent. A single woman with no living family or close friends, Bearing is fully immersed in her work. It is her livelihood, her passion and her companion. But then she learns she has ovarian cancer. And as Bearing bluntly puts it, There isn’t a fifth stage.
With the cancer past the point of curable, the doctors decide to use Bearing as an experiment to learn more about the treatments for cancer. For eight weeks, she undergoes the highest possible dosage of chemotherapy. The doctors don’t expect her to live through them all, but Bearing does. And as the doctors say, she is a strong woman. But a strong mind cannot be equated with a cancer-ridden body. Eventually, the doctors no longer view Bearing as a patient or a person. She is merely an experiment.
Through her witty one-liners, her brief flashbacks and her yearning to tell her story, you learn about Vivian Bearing. And despite her flaws, you embrace her. You are drawn to her courage, her intelligence and her wit. And as you learn about her as she struggles for her life, Bearing learns about herself. She examines her own flaws and her own successes.
You know from the beginning Bearing is going to die. She tells you so from the moment she steps on stage. She even jokes that she needs to tell her story in less than two hours because that’s all the time she’s got. But the light-hearted air that embodies much of the show does not detract from the powerful message that you will walk away with.
Much of the success of the show lies in the tremendous performance of Judith Light, best known for her role as Angela Bower on Who’s the Boss? She does not merely tackle the role of Bearing, but becomes Bearing. Her courageous performance carries the show. You feel, as much as you can, what she is feeling. Her emotions, her actions and her character are real.
The other actors also contribute greatly to the overall success of the show. Lisa Tharps, who portrays Susie Monahan, the head nurse at the hospital, exudes warmth and innocence. Monahan draws Bearing out of her stone mask to reveal the scared woman in need of compassion. The chemistry that erupts between Light and Tharps allows you to witness the change that Bearing goes through during her ordeal.
Doctors Harvey Kelekian and Jason Posner expose an often-criticized facet of the medical world. For many doctors, patients become experiments. The doctors disengage themselves from the patient and view them only in medical terms. In Wit, this image of robotic doctors is all too real.
Wit, written by D.C. native Margaret Edson, won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1999. Despite some rave reviews, the show struggled on Broadway, with the main problem being the topic of the show – cancer. People go to the theater to escape reality and Wit thrives in reality. The story exists in the world you live in. The characters could easily be your relatives, friends or neighbors. But, the same features that plagued Wit also take it to a level that few performances attain. As Bearing goes through her transformation, you too will endure a revolution about life, death and everything in between.
Wit continues at The Kennedy Center through March 26.
This article appeared in the March 16, 2000 issue of the Hatchet.