Can a play about cancer be uplifting? That’s the question posed by Margaret Edson in her Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Wit, currently showing at the Elite Theatre Company in Oxnard. The play concerns the plight of Dr. Vivian Bearing, a 50-year-old English teacher with a particular fondness for sonnets written by English scholar and metaphysical poet John Donne (1572 – 1631). Bearing is suffering from Stage IV metastatic ovarian cancer and is undergoing eight rounds of full-strength chemotherapy in order to fight off the disease. During the play, Bearing addresses the audience as she re-enacts events from her life, returning to her hospital bed where she deals with the dispassionate, clinical doctors and orderlies, who treat her more as an experiment than as a human being.
Sindy McKay-Swerdlove gives a riveting, sympathetic performance as Dr. Bearing, who has no family, relying only on her intellect as her only defense mechanism. She often delves into Donne’s works for emotional support, notably Sonnet 10, which begins “Death, be not proud, though some have called thee mighty and dreadful, for thou are not so.” The audience witnesses stages of her treatment, in which she loses her hair, suffers from nausea and weakness, and returns again and again to Donne for solace and comfort.
At one point, Bearing delivers a lecture on Donne, with the words to Donne’s sonnet projected on a screen. When doctors interrupt her to take her for more treatment, she stands in front of the screen, the words from the sonnet projected on her body, implying a link between Bearing and her literary mentor as she protests being taken away from the thing that she truly loves the most. ‘I thought being extremely smart would take care of it,” she complains.
The rotating phalanx of doctors, nurses, and orderlies include Scott Blanchard as Bearing’s oncologist, Dr. Harvey Kelekian, and Michael Adams as Jason Posner, an overly eager fellow and former student of Bearing’s, who treats her like a research subject, as she is subjected to an unending series of “infernal tests,” as she puts it. As her disease progresses, the query “How are you feeling today?” which is posed by everyone who enters her hospital room, cuts like a knife.
Blanchard personifies the uncaring oncologist, who rarely looks up from his clipboard, while Benjamin Blonigan, Elixeo Flores, and Rebecca Spagnolia play other nurses and lab technicians who show professional competence but are absent of the bedside manner and empathy Bearing craves. Only nurse Susie Monahan, sympathetically played by Amy Hagler, shows any attentiveness towards Bearing, begging Dr. Posner to reduce the dosage of the debilitating chemotherapy chemicals, to no avail.
Theresa Secor has a heart-rending scene as Dr. E. M. Ashford, Bearing’s former teacher and Donne expert, who lovingly reads a children’s book, The Runaway Bunny, to Bearing during her final hours.
In 2017, the Chicago Tribune called Wit “the best play ever written about cancer.” The play’s cynical view of medical practitioners reflects the times in which it was written (1999), although much progress has been made since then with regard to support groups and caring for the whole patient and understanding their wishes. Dispassionate treatment of cancer victims still exists, however, and anyone who has known someone who has died from cancer will find Wit to be an emotionally shattering and even highly disturbing experience. McKay-Swerdlove’s sympathetic and highly-skilled performance ensures this.
Wit is directed by Christine Adams with assistance from Angela DeCicco.
Wit plays through March 22 at the Elite Theatre Company in Oxnard. For dates and showtimes, see the VC On Stage Calendar.