"It is not my intention to give away the plot, but I think I die at the end. They’ve given me less than two hours.” Professor Vivian Bearing, expert in the metaphysical poetry of John Donne, pronounces her fate towards the beginning of W;t. And if those lines are any indication, Margaret Edson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning masterpiece is intensely rewarding and challenging, humorous and morbid.
W;t follows the spiritual journey of an isolated and exacting professor who discovers her own humanity and learns to embrace kindness. It just so happens that the vehicle of self-actualization is stage 4 metastatic ovarian cancer. To be clear, co-director Joseph Kucan doesn’t want you to think that a play about terminal illness is “as terrifyingly horrific as it sounds.” But is it possible for a story about death to be entertaining?
Lead actor Tina Rice (Professor Bearing) answers with an emphatic yes: “And the reason is that we’re all going to die. It’s relatable. The beginning of the show is actually pretty funny. ... I mean, it’s called Wit.” Thin, bald and dressed in hospital gowns, Rice’s appearance is disarming. But you soon get used to it.
Kucan and co-director Ann Marie Pereth have worked to make the play audience-friendly. “We’ve taken a ridiculously well-written script about a very specific topic, and we’ve theatricalized it in such a way that the evening is one of entertainment and humor,” Kucan says. Instead of static sets, the directors have choreographed dynamic scene changes that evoke the feeling of a hospital. When chemotherapy makes Vivian nauseous, for example, orderlies spin and push her bed so that the stage seems to roll with the contents of her stomach.
But why is W;t spelled with a semicolon? It’s a reference to Vivian’s own college days. In a flashback, her professor chastises her for referencing a translation of Donne’s Holy Sonnet 10, which uses a semicolon instead of a comma: “And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.” More than mere semantics, the semicolon/comma controversy represents how one views death. Is it the briefest of pauses on the way to the afterlife, or is it a harder break?
For Kucan, it’s all of the above. “W;t is a play about discovering that it’s never too late to evolve into the best version of yourself. Even if that’s just the last five minutes of your life before stepping across death’s threshold, that’s a worthwhile journey.”
W;T October 27-November 19, days & times vary, $25-$30. 100 S. Maryland Parkway, apublicfit.org.