"Wit," now on stage at Long Island
University’s Downtown Brooklyn campus, is ostensibly about Vivian
Bearing, a 50-year-old professor of 17th-century poetry who is
dying of ovarian cancer; the doctors and nurses who care for
her; and the two major influences in her life, her distant, intellectual
father and the professor who directed her thesis, E.M. Ashford.
But there is a third, unseen presence that haunts the drama - John Donne, the first and greatest of the metaphysical poets, whose "Holy Sonnets" Bearing has spent years studying and teaching.
Donne was raised as a Catholic and spent his youth pursuing elegant women. But at the age of 42, he was converted to Anglicanism, and six years after his ordination, he became dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral.
Donne’s poetry falls into two categories: the early ironic and erotic verse, and his later religious work. But it is the later poems that are the focus of playwright Margaret Edson and her protagonist. Throughout the play, Bearing quotes Donne on death, faith and salvation.
The current production of "Wit" is performed and directed by students in LIU’s department of communication studies, performance studies and theatre. It is a difficult undertaking and director Fushia Osbourne must be commended for her choice. But she and her young cast are unable to bring out the humanity one suspects must be inherent in this play (after all, it did win the 1999 Pulitzer Prize, Drama Desk and New York Drama Critics Circle awards), with the result that the play delivers one message quite powerfully, but only one - that dying is painful and dying alone is even more painful.
Bearing is played by Shauna Wilde, who brilliantly establishes the academic’s personality. Bearing is independent, isolated and intellectual, a woman who early on discovered her own wit and has used it throughout her life as a defense against the possibility of friendship, love, vulnerability and pain. At the opening of the play, one has every reason to believe she has been remarkably, almost unbelievably, successful.
"Wit" unfolds as a series of ironic monologues delivered by the deteriorating Bearing, alternating with scenes in which she suffers the indignities of hospitalization or relives past experiences with her father (who seems to be more interested in the New York Times than in his young daughter) and her professor (who sees metaphysical meanings in commas and capitalization).
The monologues are very effective, the scenes less so. This is mostly because the director has the actors address many of their lines to the audience instead of having the actors react to one another. What possibilities are lost!
"Wit" is filled with ironic symbolism. A dying woman is an expert on a poet obsessed with death. As a detached professor, she had many students at her mercy; now she is at the mercy of equally detached doctors. Even her surname, Bearing, has ironic implications. She who was in the habit of bearing down now is in the difficult position of bearing up.
Just as Donne’s poetry is not easy to plough through, "Wit" is not easy to sit through; one searches in vain for an abatement to the unremitting agony of death and loneliness.
One suspects that in more seasoned hands "Wit" might be incredibly moving, especially at the end when Bearing is devastated by the disease. Unfortunately, young Wilde looks just as healthy at the end of the play as she does at the beginning. What one wouldn’t give for an intermission and time to change her makeup!
Then there’s the play’s direction. Even when, in the play’s most moving scene, nurse Susie Monahan (the wonderful Erica Jackson) reaches out to Bearing with Popsicles and kind words, Bearing barely acknowledges the effort. And when her old professor comes to her bedside and reads the wonderful children’s book "The Runaway Bunny" Bearing is fast asleep.
The main problem is that there’s no growth, no change, no redemption for Bearing. The characters never really touch each other or the audience.
Donne’s most famous "Holy Sonnet" begins with the admonition "Death be not proud" and ends with the affirmation, "One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally, And death shall be no more, Death thou shalt die."
This poem is discussed at great length in the play. It is taken apart and pieced together until it loses its very meaning. This is entirely in keeping with Edson’s point that an academic analysis can drain the power out of poetry.
"Wit" provides us with an example of what not to do with poetry and life, but it gives us no alternative. Still, just as the poetry of Donne provides great beauty and wisdom for those with the fortitude to brave its archaic language, Edson, with her fine mastery of English, has created moments of soaring eloquence for those with the stamina to live through Bearing’s death.
Long Island University presents "Wit" through Feb. 15, Thursdays and Fridays at 7 pm, and Saturdays and Sundays at 2 pm. Tickets are $12. Barbara and Melvin Pasternack Theatre at Long Island University’s Brooklyn campus is located in the Humanities Building, 1 University Plaza (DeKalb Avenue at Flatbush Avenue Extension) in Downtown Brooklyn. For reservations, call (718) 488-1089.