I’m not sure when I should stop saying “I’m new to the Twin Cities” but I had heard tell of actor Sally Wingert, a local treasure, and Friday night was my first time experiencing her legend-ary. She does not disappoint; the woman is darn good. From sarcasm to begrudging vulnerability, she portrays Professor Vivian Bearing, the academic hard-ass faced with her untimely demise in Artistry Theater and Visual Arts’ current production of Wit. This is a part Wingert graciously commands.
I have a long-time affection for this show. Playwright, Margaret Edson is a well-known success story from my alma mater, Smith College, I worked on the play in graduate school, and have seen it done several times over the past 10 years, including the Cynthia Nixon reboot when I was working for the Manhattan Theatre Club. Clearly I had high expectations and this production passed with flying colors.
The play is a ninety-five-minute life lesson reminding us to embrace our inevitable mortality. What is the mark of a successful life? What is important; the professional success, fame and fortune or the human connections and experiences we’ve collected along the way? Although Wit is the Pulitzer Prize winner from 1999, it is just as vital today. It reminds us that “you can’t take it with you.” The American Dream has evolved into an unrealistic need to be the BEST. But...at what cost? When Vivian begins to recognize the value of human kindness over the accolades of academia she is humbled by the clinical cynicism of the medical establishment who ultimately care nothing for WHO she is, but instead care only for WHAT she represents to the world of scientific discovery. In this world, Vivian’s life work, (the study of Poet John Donne), is reduced to simple punctuation and therefore so is she, “death is a comma, a pause.”
Nurse Susie and Jason Posner (Cristina Castro and Corey DiNardo respectively) play the two sides of that conflict on point. Susie is the simple yet sunny empath who shows Vivian the importance of personal connection while Jason (racing down the same life path as the once ambitious professor) is so caught up in work, research, and results, that he must be reminded to even feign bedside manner.
Director, Benjamin McGovern, shows an aptitude for this sensitive material, clearly achieved in this detailed, timely production. He does a wonderful job using the Black Box space to create the sterile medical environment. The examination table, hospital bed, wheelchair, IV tower, among other things, are moved expertly up and down ramps. The ensemble is choreographed to appear with a trash can, a vomit bucket, a catheter etc…on cue which keeps the pace of the production moving along. The tertiary characters are often standing on either side of the stage watching Vivian’s monologues, chorus like, and it’s lovely. They jump in and out of small roles effortlessly, with humor and reverence as needed.
One of the most poignant moments in the show is near the end when Vivian’s college mentor, Professor Ashford (Barbra Berlovitz), comes to visit Vivian when she is on major pain medication, alone and vulnerable. Her offer of a Donne recitation is dismissed so instead Ashford, spontaneously, reads The Runaway Bunny to Vivian, a children’s book intended as a gift for her great grandchild. The moment is beautiful, heartbreaking, and provides her a last chance at human contact.
The play inspires us to reevaluate how we approach life and that we still have the time to change. The production tells the story clearly and poignantly and reminds us that “now is the time for simplicity, for kindness.” That message rings true, maybe now more than ever. Heading into its final week, you still have time to catch Ms. Wingert and crew and I highly recommend that you do.