Vivian Bearing, Ph.D., is suffering. It is something she thinks her wit has prepared her for. In a period of just 90 minutes, she will learn how wrong she is.
Bearing is the central character in Margaret Edson’s long one-act play “Wit,” which won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1999. It is being presented at the Bangor Opera House by the Penobscot Theatre Company through March 31.
The play, directed by Kappy Kilburn, is about Bearing’s treatment for stage four ovarian cancer. The university professor, an expert in the poetry of John Donne, reflects on her life and death from her hospital bed while undergoing an experimental treatment.
Kilburn, who directed “Ink” at PTC last year, expertly creates an ensemble, led by New York actress Sarah Dacey-Charles, that sometimes seems to dance rather than walk onstage. The six actors in the cast appear to move around Dacey-Charles as if she were a Maypole.
The role of Vivian Bearing is a meaty and demanding one for any actress. The character has the bulk of the dialogue. Dacey-Charles shaved her head and appears nude briefly at the end of the play.
The New York-based actress is hypnotic on stage. Her Bearing is charmingly cold in her interactions with human beings and chillingly passionate about poetry and words. Dacey-Charles gives Bearing a humanity few of the character’s students ever glimpsed and a vulnerability the professor successfully hid for years.
Zachary A. Robbins probably gives Dr. Jason Posner more humanity than he deserves. His research physician never really sees his patient as a lab rat instead of a human being.
That choice allows the play to question the medical research system rather than the treatment provider. It also lets Robbins mine Posner’s nervousness and discomfort at treating a colleague for every ounce of comedy.
As Bearing’s former professor and mentor, Alison Cox creates the tough academic her student became but also the caring teacher Bearing never was able to master. Cox’s final scene with Dacey Charles is tender, heartbreaking and life affirming all at the same time.
Amelia Forman-Stiles, Bernard Hope, Emma Howard, Abby Kimball and Nathan Roach round out the talented cast.
Set designer Dan Bilodeau’s decision to extend the stage almost to the front row of seats was a good one. It makes theatergoers feel as if they are peering into Bearing’s hospital room. While that is comfortable as the play begins and Dacey Charles speaks directly to the audience, it feels almost too intimate as the character dies. That is exactly what Edson intended.
In her only misstep, Kilburn set the play in the present but Shannon Zura’s lighting design is laden with the institutional green of 20 years ago. Bilodeau’s set also is painted pale green. The hospitals of today have walls of cheerey yellows with paintings of pastoral scenes hung on them.
“Wit” is entertaining and provocative theater. It makes theatergoers laugh, feel and think at the same time.
It has been a long time since PTC produced a show that asked the latter of an audience. Regular and occasional theater lovers in the Bangor area should embrace it.
For ticket information, call 942-3333.
Editor’s Note: The Bangor Daily News is sponsor of the Penobscot Theatre Company.