by Mike Hoban
‘Wit’ – Written by Margaret Edson; Directed by John Geoffrion; Set Design by JP Pizzuti; Lighting Design by Chris Bocchiaro; Costume Design by Nancy Ishihara; Sound Design by Deirdre Benson. Presented by the Hub Theatre Company of Boston at First Church Boston, 66 Marlborough St., Boston through November 19
Cancer, like death itself, is the great leveler. While my immediate family has largely been spared from its ravages, I have watched a number of friends and their loved ones succumb to it over the years, sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly and painfully. If there is one thing I have learned from these experiences, it’s that cancer is an equal opportunity disease. Rich or poor, virtuous or deplorable, scholarly or illiterate – cancer does not discriminate.
So when college professor Dr. Vivian Bearing, who has been just been diagnosed with Stage IV metastatic ovarian cancer, breaks the fourth wall and haughtily tells the audience, “I know all about life and death. I am, after all, a professor of 17th century poetry…specializing in the Holy Sonnets of John Donne…which explore mortality in greater depth…than any body of work in the English language. And I know for a fact that I am tough. A demanding professor. Uncompromising,” we know we are observing someone who – quite wrongly – believes her superior intellect will protect her from a fate reserved for mere mortals. But it is that ‘intellect as armor’ that has robbed her of any real life to begin with, as we learn during the course of Hub Theatre Company’s riveting production of Margaret Edson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, Wit.
As the play begins, Bearing is preparing to undergo a highly aggressive and experimental treatment at the hands of her teaching hospital physicians (one of whom is a former student who admired her “uncompromising” teaching methods) who may be more interested in Bearing as lab rat than as human patient. We watch as she endures eight rounds of chemotherapy at full dosage, and as we walk through the treatments with her, we get a glimpse of her precancerous life, from early childhood through her academic career. In an odd way, Bearing’s behavior is reminiscent of Scrooge in “A Christmas Carol” – minus the cruel demeanor and his glorious redemption.
In one beautiful scene, we see her as a five year old with her father, joyfully learning the meaning of the word “soporific” (which is used in a masterful callback as she nears death) and watch her morph into someone whose over-analytical nature robs her of her ability to connect with either fellow humans or the beauty of the poetry she grinds the life out of. Her treatment of her students seems to be more about asserting intellectual dominance than actually teaching them about the poetry she purports to love, and we see her pay the price for that inability to connect when no visitors show up at the hospital to comfort her through her ordeal.
If this sounds depressing, it’s not. As Bearing, Liz Adams gives a performance that is nothing short of astonishing, totally inhabiting her character, and it may be the best performance by any actor on Boston stages this year. She punctures Bearing’s basically unlikable persona with an endearingly dry wit, delivering gems like, “It is not my intention to give away the plot, but I think I die at the end. They have given me less than two hours.” she tells the audience with a wry smile.
Director John Geoffrion extracts solid performances from his able cast, including Tim Hoover as the calculating young clinical fellow overseeing her treatment, Robert Bonotto as Dr. Kelekian, the intimidating chief of oncology (and doing double duty as Bearing’s father), and Lauren Elias, who gives one of her strongest performances to date as the down-to-earth nurse who Bearing connects with before her demise. This is a don’t miss production for theater goers. For more information, go to: http://www.hubtheatreboston.org/next-show.html