Dr. Vivian Bearing is dying of ovarian cancer. A professor of literature specialising in the Holy Sonnets of John Donne, Bearing (played by Jane Montgomery Griffiths) is intelligent in a ferociously cerebral way – she has little time for human connection that has not been formalised in strictest of forms. As she stares down her mortality, Bearing gives eloquent insights into her, and the human, condition, searching desperately for a way to hide behind her wit.
Written by Margaret Edson, Wit won a Pulitzer prize in 1996. This production by the Artisan Collective, ten years later, is the Australian premiere of the play. Director Ben Pfeiffer has worked hard to curate a space, crew, and cast that place Edson’s writing at the fore, and it pays off.
Jeminah Ali Reidy’s set is skeletal, white pipes sketching out hospital rooms against the worn floorboards of fortyfivedownstairs. The costuming is likewise sparse. Bearing is draped in an inadequate white hospital gown, her wiry frame and soft flesh contouring a mostly see-through curtain. Griffiths, as Bearing, is a well of words and emotion. Her intense physicality and her desperate intellect fight for freedom of expression. This is what reasoning and poetry is for, the play suggests, to help us face death, although it draws no conclusions about how successfully such tools can be used. Such a message is buoyed by the meta, self aware aspects of the play. Bearing takes breaks from her agony, dryly commenting on her situation and those who care for her with a distance and humour only afforded by performance. Griffiths embodies the torment of treatment so well that such asides become moments of relief for the audience as well as Bearing herself – respite never achievable for actual cancer patients.
The supporting cast don’t add much, but they don’t take much away either, which is about as much as you can hope for a production with such a strong central character performed by such a powerful actor. The introspection and solitude of a life like Bearing’s leaves the people she meets as foils at best and two dimensional character types at worst, and the lens of the play presents the supporting cast as such.
Cancer is something of a ubiquitous trauma. It has touched everyone’s life in some form or other. Wit is a deeply effecting show for anyone familiar with the emptiness of terminal diagnosis, the metaphysical pain of life, or the use of comedy in the bleakest of moments.
Wit is on at fortyfivedownstairs until the 17th of September. Tickets range between $26 – $38, and are available online and at the box office.