A Review of Wit

wit1by Matthew Falduto
Photo by Zoey Akers

Marion Wit by Margaret Edson is a funny and emotional play, a compact 100 minutes of pathos and pain about a woman dying of ovarian cancer. It deservedly won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1999 as it shined a light on the suffering and humanity of the terminally ill. After its successful premiere, the show was produced by theaters all over the country, and remained on the top ten list of most produced plays for three seasons – 1999-2000, 2000-2001, and 2001-2002. It’s an excellent addition to Giving Tree’s 2015-16 season and provides a nice counterbalance to the lighter fare of last year, like The Best Christmas Pageant Ever and Barefoot in the Park.

Wit tells the story of Vivian Bearing, Ph.D., an English poetry professor who is going through chemotherapy. It becomes clear early on that the chemo will most likely not save her life, but instead will provide the researchers with additional information needed to help them treat others. So this isn’t about surviving cancer – it’s about fighting hard with everything you got and holding onto one’s humanity. The character of Bearing is a hero, in every sense of the world, and that’s probably one reason this play has resonated so much with audiences.

Vivian Bearing is portrayed by veteran Cedar Rapids actress, Marty Norton. In the opening minutes of the performance I witnessed, she stumbled over some of the admittedly challenging medical dialogue, which kept her acting a little off balance. She couldn’t seem to stand still, moving from one foot to the other as she addressed the audience, and one could see the frustration of the actor rather than the character. However, what was truly wonderful to watch was how she rescued the performance.

Every actor has had that performance where things didn’t quite go as planned. The best actors know how to pull themselves back into the show and center themselves into the performance. That’s what Norton did about 15 minutes into the show. From that moment on, I was mesmerized by her work. As Bearing slowly broke down, as the disease chipped away at her dignity, Norton allowed us to see the pain even as she perfectly injected humor into the moments. The physicality of her performance was wonderful to witness as her body became more hunched over and her legs lost their elasticity as she moved across the stage. And truly, I’m not sure how she did this, but her eyes seemed to lose some of their shine, looking duller and even vacant at points as the disease gripped Bearing tighter and tighter.

Her line delivery was whip smart and it was interesting to watch her switch from Bearing as professor of poetry to Bearing as cancer patient. She chose a less strident cadence for the cancer patient, which provided us with another window into Bearing’s struggle.

Heather Akers’ directorial decisions were shrewd, such as utilizing the actors to change scenes around Bearing as she addressed the audience, which kept the action moving and the audience engaged. I also loved the projection of the quote from John Donne on the back wall, which always reminded us of Bearing’s status as a college professor. Mary Sullivan and David Combs’ lighting design worked very well to differentiate the two playing spaces and provide added emotional depth to some of the more poignant scenes.

The supporting actors were good as well, particularly John Miersen as the unfeeling Dr. Posner and Mariah Schulueter as the compassionate nurse, Susie. Miersen had quite a challenge to show us the humanity of the bedside manner-less doctor, and he managed to do that well with facial expressions and smart line readings. Betty Cote was wonderful in her second scene as E.M. Ashford, Bearing’s old college professor, who visits her in the hospital. That may be the most powerful moment of the entire play, and Cote brought real emotion to the scene.

In the end, however, the play is Norton’s. Her brave performance is to be commended. I feel confident that the performance you see will not have the off moments in the beginning of the show. Norton is too good to let that happen again. You definitely want to experience Giving Tree’s production of Wit.

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