The 1999 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama “Wit” was the first and only play written by Margaret Edson, who has otherwise spent her career working as an elementary school teacher. That educational drive shines through in “Wit”, a moving meditation on death, and is a driving force behind the Austin Scottish Rite Theater’s new production of the drama, playing through Aug. 25 and co-produced by the Final Acts Project.
The play follows the final months of English professor Vivian Bearing as she undergoes treatment for ovarian cancer, in particular focusing on her relationship with Jason, a young doctor (and former student) obsessed with research rather than treatment; and Susie, a caring nurse who provides the only warmth in Vivian’s life. It’s no spoiler to mention that Vivian dies at the end; she says as much in her opening monologue, a direct address to the audience that forms the narrative spine of the play, weaving together her memories and fantasies with her real-life experiences in the hospital.
Director Susan Gayle Todd’s vision of “Wit” heavily implies that we are immersed within Vivian’s mind in her final moments, and that what we are seeing is her attempt to turn the physical, bodily experience of her death into one last lecture, akin to her career-defining exegeses of the metaphysical poems of John Donne. Todd and her design team (including lighting designer Deanna Belardinelli, costume designer Desiree Humphries, sound designer Chris Humphrey and scenic designers Leilah Stewart and Vicki Yoder) take advantage of the fact that the Scottish Rite Theater highly resembles a high school auditorium and create a fever dream-like melding of an academic setting and busy hospital.
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The result is an off-putting yet immersive experience that re-creates Vivian’s conflict between giving up control of her own body and her obsession with being a respected academic and commanding teacher. Kristin Fern Johnson’s masterful performance perfectly rides the line between strength and despair, switching on a dime from a version of Vivian suffering in her hospital bed, begging for comfort, and an inner lecturer who wants to commandeer her final performances and refuses to stoop to maudlin sentimentality or needless humor.
This conflict is underscored by the study in contrasts provided by Delanté Keys’ Jason and Megan Ortiz’s Susie. While Keys matches Johnson’s poetic, philosophical musings in his awe over the majesty of cancer, Ortiz connects with her baser, more human moments, providing the caring succor that Vivian refuses to even acknowledge that she needs. Both relationships are developed in part thanks to an almost invisible added scene partner, the live music composed and performed by David Mayers that provides a backing of emotional depth and resonance to a text that frequently elides such cathartic closure.
“Wit” is a complex text, addressing themes about control, academia, palliative care and the ways in which doctors sometimes treat patients with no more care than a professor taking apart the grammar of a poem. Austin Scottish Rite Theater faithfully captures all the nuance and intricacy of the play in a production that is, itself, full of a mixture of both heady intellectual wit and, in the end, simple human kindness.
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday through Aug. 25
Where: 207 W. 18th St.