The Production Company
at the Chandler Studio Theatre Center
I have for the last decade rather stealthily avoided accepting an assignment to cover a production of Margaret Edson’s Wit, winner of the Pulitzer Award for Drama in 1999. The reason is not that I don’t have only the greatest respect for this play, it’s that I admire it so much and felt I had a few too many personal connections to it to think I could be totally objective reviewing it.
The first consideration is that Wit is the story of Dr. Vivian Bearing (Karesa McIlheny), a bright and gifted 50-year-old unmarried college professor discovering she has been diagnosed with a catastrophic terminal illness. Edson takes inventive creative license by letting her leading character speak directly to the audience, relating to us her fear, her anger, her despair as she slowly loses her battle in the 4th stage of ovarian cancer right before our eyes. As a four-time survivor of the Big C myself, as with anyone who has won the battle against the disease but never stops seeing its spectre looming like a giant boulder over one’s head forever after, this is one subject not always easy to take on with any convincing neutrality.
The other consideration is that Kathleen Chalfant, the American treasure who originated the role of Bearing off-Broadway and won worldwide accolades for her performance—including the Obie, Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle, Drama League, and Lucille Lortel Awards in New York, as well as Ovation, LADCC and TicketHolder Awards when she repeated her performance here at the Geffen Playhouse in 2000—is one of my most cherished friends. Even more than that, Kathy and I first met when she did Wit here 8 years ago, becoming acquainted after I initially criticized her in my otherwise glowing ET review for something she’d said in a LA Times interview. Kathy asked our mutual friend, playwright-scholar Leon Katz, if he could set up a meeting between us to discuss the issue, something that quickly evolved between us into a fast friendship.
The original problem was Kathy’s statement that she saw Wit as a play “about hope,” something that eluded me then and, frankly, still doesn’t work for me even now. Meeting Kathy for the first time for a latenight supper after one of her performances, she told me that her brother had been dying of cancer during the time she first began workshopping the play and the hope she gleaned from working on her character helped get her through that difficult personal time. When art heals, it’s always on a personal individual basis, I believe, and Kathy saw one poignant scene late in the story, when Bearing’s once-revered but now long retired university instructor comes to her hospital room and reads a child’s storybook to the dying woman, as a beacon of hope in her own difficult family situation.
Personally, I don’t see it. I instead see Vivian Bearing as an epically tragic contemporary character easily able to rival the trials of King Lear and far surpass the infamous whiny woes of poor ol’ Willie Loman. That such a vital—if damaged—person can so easily be reduced to total humiliation and find all her acquired strengths overpowered by an encroaching sense of terror that puts into question everything in her life in which she found some meaning, is simply heartbreaking, not uplifting. Although Bearing’s fragile relationship with her now-aged former mentor and her growing dependence on the not-too-bright nurse who attends her (with far more humanity than her medical team) are both touching and significant to Edson’s bittersweet theatrical exploration of human nature, I find nothing hopeful in that either.
Instead, Edson once said in an interview: “[Wit is] a play about love and knowledge. And it’s about a person who has built up a lot of skills during her life who finds herself in a new situation where those skills and those great capacities don't serve her very well. So she has to disarm, and then she has to become a student. She has to become someone who learns new things.”
All that would be swell if Vivian Bearing didn’t croak in horrible pain at the end regardless. When my mother died of cancer in 1965 at a ridiculously young age, I remember her doctor saying cancer research was at such a brink at that time that if she had contracted the disease 5 year later she probably would have survived. That was 1965. I was told nearly the same exact thing the next year when my first true love passed away from leukemia at age 25 and then again the year after that when I faced my own first bout with the mercilessly indiscriminating disease.
Shame on the medical profession, for whom cancer is such a continual cash cow. No, there’s no sense of hope in Wit for me, only sorrow for the loss of everything so many incredible people might have shared with the rest of the world if they had been allowed to stay with us. All these years later, Wit still brings up things that make me angry as hell, particularly man’s continuing callousness, even in a profession where participants take an oath to save lives above any other consideration—including golf scores and unfathomable mortgage payments on houses south of Sunset.
Still, whatever my personal connections—or lack or connection—with Wit, there’s no doubt Margaret Edson’s remarkable first play without a doubt deserved its Pulitzer. Wit did for 17th century poetry and the medical research profession what Tom Stoppard did for the world of mathematics and English gardens. Now superbly remounted by the dedicated new Production Company at the Chandler Studio Theatre Center, I am reminded once again this is a work that goes far beyond the classroom analytical stuffiness of intellectual pursuits to mourn the innate humanity that too often gets mislaid in the process.
Beginning with Dr. Bearing admitting to the audience that “it’s not a good idea to give away the plot, but I think I die at the end,” Edson’s play is chockfull of long, convoluted, yet frequently darkly funny monologues shared with us by her anti-heroic academic, who seems to reveal her wicked sense of humor only with us, not her students. Bearing is a highly respected authority on the impenetrable verse of 17th century English poet John Donne, but the professor’s fascinating yet emotionally disengaged classroom sermons on the subject and her stiff-backed by-the-book treatment of her pupils are clearly legendary. “My students read through a text,” she complains with great annoyance, “and they think they need a break.”
Here, in an ingenious stoke of Peter Shaffer-itis, Edson juxtaposes Bearing’s stuffy lectures with indecipherable medical jargon offered by a less than compassionate medical team coldly, clinically studying her descent into the final stage of disease. “In this condition, everything living is a danger to me,” Bearing tells us as her weakened immune system causes alarm to the hospital staff. “Especially healthcare workers.”
Wit is a perfect play, contrasting Bearing’s unwavering commitment to scholarly orderliness with her lack of emotive connection to life around her. When she’s thrown into a world she cannot possibly know, she becomes adrift in the process, her ability to relate beyond the classroom leaving her in the hands of others who’ve also lost their way as human beings within the disciplines of their profession. This is particularly true for intern Jason Posner (Paul Dennison), a former student of Bearing’s who took her class without interest in her subject and now stands before her telling her as much—as he performs a pelvic exam.
Edson’s play lends itself beautifully to the Chandler’s excessively deep and narrow stage, augmented cleverly by producer August Viverito’s sparse but surprisingly evocative set design. Robert Mammana’s precisionally understated direction boils the play down to the basics (including Bearing jotting notes to her “students” on the stage walls rather than wheeling a chalkboard in and out for every classroom scene) and an exceptional supporting cast, especially Dennison, Shelly Kurtz as her primary physician, and Aubrey Saverino as Susie, that compassionate nurse who finds the conduct of her cohorts appalling, offer quintessential and even reverential sustenance to augment McElheny’s tour-de-force performance.
As perfectly constructed as Edson’s masterpiece may be, without a well-tuned production to match—and without a dynamic world-class performance by any actor cast in the demanding role of Vivian Bearing, who never leaves the stage for a minute and hardly has time to breathe between moments swallowing the character’s intense physical and emotional pain—this particular play might as well stay on the shelf.
For nearly a decade, that aforementioned indelible turn by Kathleen Chalfant in the original production of Wit has remained bright and shining in my memory as one of the singular most extraordinary performances I have ever had the honor to see in my 6 decades spent in continuous worship of the art of creating theatre. But not only does McElheny seem to have channeled Kathy’s breathtakingly subtle ability to transcend all the pitfalls written into Edson’s exhausting character, she ferociously and passionately makes the epic role her own. The evening is clearly hers—and Edson’s.
I am compelled to relate one funny story about my initially Wit-related friendship with Kathy Chalfant. At the end of the play, Bearing’s death becomes one of the most arrestingly beautiful theatrical moments of all time. As Susie, the EMTs and doctors watch her slip away from life, the actor playing the role rises “unseen” from among those in attendance around her bed, finding her way downstage to stare up at a bright, bright light as she drops her hospital gown and stands naked before her mesmerized audience.
The same year Kathy brought Wit to the Geffen, I played Kenneth Halliwell, lover and executioner of playwright Joe Orton, in the west coast premiere of Lanie Robertson’s Nasty Little Secrets. At the end of the play, I too had to drop my drawers or in this case, my pajamas, before I grabbed my hammer and committed the play’s horrendous concluding murder-suicide. And as with Kathy and most every actor playing Vivian Bearing, I also had shaved my head for my role, tearing off Halliwell’s much-discussed toupee as I ripped off my clothes.
The following winter, both Kathy and I were nominated for LA Drama Critic Awards for our performances in our perspective plays. She was working in New York at the time of the awards ceremony, but emailed me an acceptance speech to deliver for her in case she won the big prize. Just before they announced her sure-thing of a win, I was given my own cherished LADCC Best Actor Award and no sooner had I sat down when I had to return to the stage to deliver Kathy’s speech. But before I did, I told the audience I wanted to give everyone in attendance a piece of advice. “For all you actors over 50 still struggling to get a little recognition in this business,” I said, “take it from Kathy and me: shave your head and get naked at the end and they’ll give you awards for it.”
Wit plays through Feb. 16 at the Chandler Studio Theatre Center, 12443 Chandler Blvd. in North Hollywood; for tickets, call 800.838.3006.