Thursday, January 25, 2018

WIT at SecondStory Rep - Exquisite and Still Completely Relevant

Eleanor Moseley and Eric Hartley in WIT (Michael Brunk)
SecondStory Repertory Theatre
Through February 3, 2018

Margaret Edson hit it out of the park with her first - and only - play: Wit (or W;T). With her background working in a research hospital with AIDS and cancer patients, Edson decided she had something to say about Life and Death. She won a Pulitzer Prize for her drama and continued to become a public school teacher, having focused her early education on dramatic literature. She remains a teacher, today, as far as we know.

Her play introduces Vivian Bearing, Ph.D. in English, an expert in the brilliant and difficult metaphysical sonnets of John Donne. As soon as Bearing (the captivating and intense Eleanor Moseley) begins to speak to the audience, we know she is going to die by the end of the play. It's not a mystery.

She has been diagnosed with terminal ovarian cancer. It surprised her because she was such a healthy person. We learn that by the time she felt bad enough to get to a doctor, she'd immediately been diagnosed at Stage 4. That meant that there was no way to arrest or cure her cancer. While that moment in the play passes by maybe a bit too quickly, when she is given forms to sign for "the most aggressive treatment available," it dawns on us that she has signed up to be a guinea pig for studies about treatments.

Bearing, as a character, is clearly a bit out of her depth in dealing with her emotions. She describes herself and her teaching as uncompromising and demanding and while not humorless, certainly not all that lighthearted. But as her life grows short, we find that she's begun to experience her fundamental humanity.

Edson fills the play with support characters like the oncologist (Eric Hartley), the unconscious and humanity-challenged former student who is her medical intern (Garrett Lander), the academically-challenged but humanity-acing nurse (Shanna Allman), flashbacks to her poetry mentor (Janette Oswald) and aides in the hospital and students in her class (Ryan St. Martin, Amy Mayes, and Cristin Fenzel). The company of actors, under the direction of Peggy Gannon, totally pulls off even the smallest of scenes. So, too, the inventive scenic design and projections by The Squolf splash hospital ambience or academic library across the walls.

Without an actor able to pull of what feels like a solo performance, this play fails. There is no failure possible here with Moseley pulling out all her abilities and sharing this tortured journey with us. If you have never seen this play, you can be assured that even though they use telephones tethered to the wall and technology that should feel old, this is as relevant and contemporary as can be.

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