SHOWING : March 06, 2009 - April 04, 2009
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This moving and ultimately uplifting play is a first person commentary on humanity, fear, loss, regret and life itself. This beautifully poignant story creates a world as seen through the eyes of its main character, Dr. Vivian Bearing, who is forced to re-examine her life while trying to make sense of her disease.
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For Want of a Semicolon|
Wednesday, April 8, 2009 ||
At the center of “Wit,” Margaret Edson’s Pulitzer-Prize winning examination of Death and Donne, a seemingly pointless and trivial literary discussion emerges over the subtle differences in comma/semi-colon use in various editions of “Death be not Proud,” one of the crowning benchmarks of 17th-century metaphysical poetry. I call it pointless and trivial, but to the characters, to scholars of any passion, it is anything but trivial. It is emblematic of the choices one makes when opting between being a rigorous scholar, and being a casual fan. (For the rigorous fans amongst you, I’ve added both versions as a post-script to this column.)|
Perhaps I’m seeing too many plays these days, perhaps I’ve been moved by too many productions of this particular work, but Onstage Atlanta’s production, though technically remarkable, though well-performed and well-directed as anything you’re likely to see, to my mind made some choices which betrayed a failure of rigor in the study of this particular script. To most of you, I daresay this criticism will come across as mere quibbling, as trivial intellectualizing. To me, though, they made the difference between seeing this is an overwhelmingly excellent piece of theatre, and seeing it as a merely good and competent reading of a difficult play.
As a recap for those unfamiliar with the play, Dr. Vivian Bearing is a professor of “seventeenth-century poetry specializing in the Holy Sonnets of John Donne.” She is also dying of Stage 4 Ovarian Cancer (“There is no Stage 5”). The play is, in affect, a dialogue between the “ivory tower” view of Death as painted by Donne and as rigorously examined by Dr. Bearing’s academic training, and the real pain-and-morphine crusted reality of her own impending end. If I make this sound like a dry and dusty mental debate rather than a play, it’s most definitely not. Dr. Bearing is one of the most compelling characters created for the stage, and I, for one, always welcome an opportunity to make this final voyage with her.
My first quibble is that this production concentrated on the “Death” portion of the plot and glossed over the “Donne” portion. Indeed, the theatre partnered with a local Ovarian Cancer support group (rightly so) and created clever hospital ID bracelets to use as tickets. But the literary discussions are given a bland (and arguably dry) reading – for the first time, I didn’t feel Vivian’s passion of poetry, the joy she takes in discovery, the pleasure she gets from engaging her students. It was as if it was decided that “we’ll get through these parts so we can get back to the dying stuff.”
This tone was set at the start, when Josie Burgin Lawson (as Dr. Bearing) changes her description of herself and her profession from one of self-deprecating acknowledgement of the popular disdain for her chosen field, to one of agreement with that disdain. Her opening monologue left me feeling she was actually ashamed of her passion, not proud of it. After that, her scenes with her students and with her own professor came across as the dry and dusty debates a short description of the play may lead you to expect. As such, the final scene where her teacher reads to her from “The Runaway Bunny” loses all its poetic irony, loses all its emotional punch. And I really missed that.
I also missed the humorous sense of awkwardness in the scene when she learns a former student will be examining her in all those private places Donne never wrote about. This is an early scene that always highlighted the harsh realities of her condition, while making us laugh at the turning “upside down” of the traditional student / teacher dynamic. This reversal seemed to have been toned down, been made a subtlety rather than a driving force, a comma rather than a semi-colon.
I also question how director David Klein ended the piece. Normally, we see Dr. Bearing reaching naked into a glowing light at the back of the stage, going into that mystery that she only knew in a literary sense. Here, a complex ramp was built behind the set, totally invisible for the bulk of the play. Dr. Bearing walks up the ramp, reaching for a light offstage left. This put a particular Judeo-Christian spin on the dying process, an “answer” that the mysteries of Donne’s poetry and Dr. Bearing’s classes studiously avoided (and which previous productions of the play studiously avoided). And because of the time and effort evident in the construction of the ramp, it was an unnecessary director’s intrusion on the script. And, if it isn’t too crude to say, by seeing Dr. Bearing’s death from the side rather than from the rear, it is too obvious that her radiation treatments didn’t cost her all her hair.
Still, this production has a great deal to recommend it. Ms. Lawson very capably handles the hospital scenes, her final pain-filled moments are wrenching and affecting, and, in spite of the aforementioned toned-down passion, I did believe her affection for teaching, for Donne, and for her students. I also liked Charles Green’s Dr. Kelekian and Justin Sims’ younger doctor. If the ensemble tended to be a little “by-the-numbers” for my taste, it must be noted that those were difficult numbers, and none of them were less than good.
So, in the final analysis, do my quibbles at all detract from the work and choices made here? Apart from the ending, I don’t think the choices made were “wrong” in a major show-stopping sense. The passion thing may have just been an end-of-the-run energy lapse rather than a mis-reading of the play. And Ms. Lawson’s performance certainly hits most of the complex notes correctly. She gets “under the skin” of this complex character, and brings home the differences between a poetic conquest of death, and a final embracement of it.
And that is definitely something for which Onstage Atlanta needs be Proud!
-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)
DEATH be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadfull, for, thou art not so,
For, those, whom thou think'st, thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poore death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleepe, which but thy pictures bee,
Much pleasure, then from thee, much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee doe goe,
Rest of their bones, and soules deliverie.
Thou art slave to Fate, Chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poyson, warre, and sicknesse dwell,
And poppie, or charmes can make us sleepe as well,
And better then thy stroake; why swell'st thou then;
(the Traditional Ending):
One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally,
And Death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die!
(E.M. Ashford’s Preferred Ending):
One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally,
And death shall be no more, Death, thou shalt die.
(The preferred version is more inevitable acceptance than triumphant victory. I think.)
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Genius In Action|
Tuesday, March 17, 2009 ||
The nature of this performance forces me to write a review of it. This is my first review for this site, and quite frankly it is the first review I have ever written for a play. I am a writer by vocation, and this is the first showing of Wit that I have seen; though I regularly attend many Atlanta Theater events.|
The script at the base of the performance is brilliant; a combination of the highest levels of verbal poetry and thought with the most universally available of human understanding. The protagonist is suffering from cancer, but it is not a play about a woman who is suffering from Cancer, it is a play about a woman who is learning the value of simple kindness and humanity. It is that rarest of gifts, forced introspection. And yet the true genius of the work is that this forced introspection is voluntary; thus avoiding treacle. It shows us someone to whom 'life was passing by' and now realizes, by her own determination for the inner truth of her situation, the need for the simple things in life.
The performance is a perfect match for the script. The primary actress playing the part does an excellent job. More importantly, she draws you into the character in such a way as to maximize your suspension of disbelief. I had the ability to attend the performance when the writer was there and you could tell that she was pleased by how things went. People were in tears. People were in awe. Indeed, it was this reaction that forced me to write this review.
The set itself is brilliantly minimalist whilst still having impressive props. The other characters and props/settings are brought in to rotate around our protagonist, at first to highlight her centrist point of view and then later to focus on the unique sadness of her experience.
I cannot recommend enough that you see this play. [POST A COMMENT REGARDING THIS REVIEW]
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