PHOTO BY RICH WAGNER
Playwright Margaret Edson used her work experience at a research hospital in an AIDS and cancer treatment wing as inspiration for her probingly powerful play “WIT” now exploring the questions of life and death at West Hartford’s Playhouse on Park until Sunday, May 8. She sent this, her first script, to sixty theaters across the country before it was accepted in 1995 for production in California. It wasn’t until 1997, however, when New Haven’s Long Wharf Theatre offered it, with Kathleen Chalfant as Vivian, that it garnered strong positive reviews, winning three CT Critics Awards, including best play. In 1999 “WIT” received the coveted Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
Vivian Bearing, a professor of 17th century poetry at a prestigious university, is faced with her greatest challenge: a diagnosis of ovarian cancer. With a stage IV rating discovered by her oncologist Dr.Harvey Kelekian, she agrees to an aggressive treatment of an experimental chemotherapy regimen, consisting of a full dosage for eight rounds.At fifty years of age, she has dedicated her life to her profession and her students, relishing the love of language. She particularly enjoys the poetry of John Donne, frequently reciting his Holy Sonnet “Death Be Not Proud.” Now death is not an abstract concept[ but quite real in all its implications. Throughout the vigorous and grueling treatment course, she reflects on her choices in life, a dedicated path to intellectualism and knowledge as opposed to personal attachments to family and friends or marriage. Elizabeth Lande is strikingly vivid and moving as this lady of words who now finds herself alone in her battle for life.With death staring straight at her, she reevaluates the alternatives she might have enjoyed as she remembers the people who were important in the past: her father (David Gautschy) who shared her love of books and learning and Professor E. M. Ashford (Waltrudis Buck) a former teacher she admired as well as the new participants in her medical world: Dr. Jason Posner (Tim Hackney) her current physician whom she knew from the past when he was a student in her class on John Donne, Dr. Harvey Kelekian (David Gautschy) the chief of medical oncology and Susie Monahan (Chuja Seo) the nurse who offers kindness and comfort.As a metaphysical poet, Donne wrote about life, death, God and an afterlife, using “wit” or wordplay to portray his reality of the world. He attempted to demystify death, to make it less ominous, to weaken death’s impact and threaten death itself with a bad end when eternity comes. Director Stevie Zimmerman does not minimize the stakes at risk in this emotional battle, a pilgrimage from this world to the next.For tickets ($22.50-35), call Playhouse on Park, 244 Park Road, West Hartford at 860-523-5900, ext. 10 or online at www.PlayhouseOnPark.org. Performances are Tuesday at 2 p.m., Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m.Come Saturday, May 21 at 7 p.m. or 10 p.m. for Comedy Night ($15), the last show of the season.Prepare to be incredibly moved by this starkly frank portrayal of one woman’s attempt to survive and her attempts to reconcile that after years of dedicated research, now she herself is being researched.