BWW Reviews: AstonRep Theatre Company's Well-acted WIT is Saturated in Sadness
AstonRep Theatre Company's high-quality production of "Wit" packs an emotional punch yet also revels in cleverness. Margaret Edson's Pulitzer Prize winning play profoundly deals with the experience of cancer, and the capable actors in the show's ensemble - particularly Alexandra Bennett in the lead role - are up to the challenge. There is much to admire here, but this is an intense theatre experience (and rightfully so when dealing with such a difficult, indescribable topic). "Wit" inevitably spirals towards tragedy, and this sadness looms during the entire 90 minutes of the play.
"Wit" charts the journey of esteemed English professor Dr. Vivian Bearing, who specializes in the study of John Donne's Holy Sonnets - fittingly, this is poetry that fundamentally explores life and death. Diagnosed with stage IV metastatic ovarian cancer at the beginning of the play, Vivian must come to grips with the biggest obstacle of her life as she enters into experimental treatment. Vivian, who takes solace in words and grammar, now must rely on those who revel in science and medicine to save her life.
In telling the story of "Wit", Edson employs an effective, Brecht-inspired device - Vivian becomes the narrator, guiding the audience through her battle with cancer. As Vivian, lead actress Alexandra Bennett deftly handles this task. And while this breaking of the fourth wall usually serves to deconstruct the artifice of performance, in this case it makes the production all the more searing. We, as the audience, experience Vivian's struggle right along with her. Bennett compellingly pulls us into the story, and she revels in Vivian's love of wordplay and complex vocabulary words. Her performance strikes a nice balance between Vivian's reserved nature and the necessary element of compassion needed to make this role come to life. As the play progresses, Vivian begins to lose the control that she holds so dear, and Bennett is not afraid to show us her more vulnerable side.
Directed by Derek Bertelsen, a strong supporting cast backs up Bennett in this production. While the majority of the play's emotional weight - and indeed, the literal text - falls on her shoulders, the rest of the ensemble also delivers. As Vivian's former student and current medical resident Jason, Drew Wieland gives a performance that is delightfully haughty yet also naïve. The exchanges between Wieland and Bennett are amusingly awkward. As the nurse Susie, Alison Plott gives a sweet turn. In her role, she shows Vivian the kindness that no one else is able to give this lonely woman. As Vivian's beloved professor E.M. Ashford, Lona Livingston truly embodies a character who is both a tough teacher and a kind woman at heart. The rest of the ensemble nicely handles multiple roles and clearly conveys the chaos of life in a hospital.
And while the ensemble becomes an integral part of "Wit", this play is ultimately Vivian's story - both in the sense that Bennett delivers a truly compelling performance but also because she is truly alone in her struggle. Evidently she is the only character in the play dealing with terminal illness, and her baldhead and hospital gown wore throughout the production serve as a constant reminder. Yet Vivian also seems utterly alone in the world, which makes this an even harder show to watch. Vivian is alone both in that she has no living parents, no significant other, and no friends who visit her in the hospital, yet also because she is the story's sole narrator. In "Wit", Vivian's only friends are the words she reads and speaks. Because of this, AstonRep's production becomes tinged with melancholy even in its truly witty moments, and the show's first-rate cast makes this impact felt even more by the audience.
AstonRep Theatre Company's "Wit" runs through June 7 at The Raven Theatre (West Stage), 6157 North Clark Street. Tickets are $20. To purchase tickets, call 773-828-9129 or visit www.astonrep.com.
Photo Credit: Emily Schwartz