What is the measure of a life? It’s a question not often considered in the rush of living but left for the last moments of reflection when it all feels a bit too late. Margaret Edson’s Pulitzer Prize winning script is a meditation on the boundary between life and death from the perspective of one accustomed to the event in the abstract.￼
Vivian Bearing (Cheryl Ward) is a revered academic specialising in the study of John Donne’s poetry. In writing about his Holy Sonnets she has come to develop a robust knowledge of the exploration of life and death, sin and salvation, through the lens of Donne’s intellectualism and wit. Now, with an ostensibly terminal cancer diagnosis, Vivian is faced with the possibility that her prioritising of intelligence and scholarship at the expense of kindness and human connection was misguided.
Written from Edson’s experience in both academia and working in an AIDS and cancer treatment wing of a research hospital, the script clearly pits the ends of the kindness/intelligence dichotomy against each other not only in the representation of Vivian’s life story but in the ethos of those caring for her. Dr Jessica Posner (Chantelle Jamieson) is a research fellow completing her clinical requirements before she can escape to her real interests in the lab while Suzy (Hailey McQueen) is a humble nurse fulfilling her duty of care to her patients. McQueen’s gentle authenticity and respectful characterisation of a ward nurse is a stand-out performance from the production with her believable warmth and generosity. Against the pride and disinterest in Jamieson’s character, Suzy is a reassuring presence, a reminder of the humanity at the heart of the medical system.
The fresh-faced medical staff and students (Matt Abotomey, Nyssa Hamilton, and Shan-Ree Tan) and the reputable Dr Kelekian (Yannick Lawry) with his best years still ahead of him, who populate Vivian’s periods of hospitalisation drive home the degradation of her position from professor to patient. Her bodily embarrassment reveals all the hidden biases we carry against illness and perceived weakness.
As the protagonist, Bearing narrates her demise in a meta-construction with direct to audience address and self-referential asides. She is an unlikeable character played by Ward with a cold passion, an ironic infatuation with Donne’s exploration of the driving forces of so much of human experience but without any feeling for the source. People are conduits, models, evidence of greater things but lacking any compelling intrigues in themselves. Direction from Helen Tonkin plays up the sarcasm of Vivian’s personality, creating even more distance between herself and those around her in key memories of off choices and opportunities lost. In her final moments and in the dawning realisation of the comforts of kindness rests the most heartbreaking element of the production, perhaps even more so than the devastation of disease.
Set design from Victor Kalka imagines the hospital as a moving maze, creating rooms and walkways out of rotating whiteboards that Vivian’s wheelchair winds through. The distinction between Vivian’s room and the rest of the ward is subtle with often a private giggle or a turned-back doing the work of excluding.
Life and death and the meaning of it all are huge and hard questions pushed to the back of the mind to make room for love and laughter or larger pursuits of excellence. Wit, in the experience of illness, strips away the distractions and puts the problem to you square while you still have time choose.
Wit is running at the Seymour Centre’s Reginald Theatre from October 16th – 26th