It is only fitting that this year's Pulitzer Prize winning drama is entitled Wit. Not only does it fit all the above definitions, but it is also indicative of the word play used throughout the play. Wit is basically a one hour and forty-five minute long monologue, punctuated by scenes, about a woman's battle with ovarian cancer and her evolution from being a mind-centered individual to one connected with her humanity.
The woman in question is Dr. Vivian Bearing, a brilliant professor and scholar of John Donne's Holy Sonnets; metaphysical poems so complex and convoluted they make Shakespeare look like Mother Goose. Diagnosed with Stage IV ovarian cancer, Vivian agrees to become part of a research project, as she figures that their quest for knowledge is akin to her own. Unfortunately, she fails to consider that researching the poems of a dead writer is a far cry from becoming the object of study; poems don't feel side effects.
Megan Cole, who created the role of Dr. Bearing in the first production of Wit in 1995 at the South Coast Repertory Theatre, is absolutely incredible. She is every professor you have ever dreaded having; the no-nonsense, 'there is no minutia too insignificant,' zealot, who usually turned out to be the one from whom you learned the most and made you into the person you are today. (I swear she is based on a Shakespearean expert I studied under...it was her right down to the arguments on the effects punctuation have on meaning). She is also a master of 'wit' in all its definitions. Wit is usually described in terms of weaponry; rapier wit, sharpen one's wits, etc. and Megan as Dr. Bearing uses every weapon at her disposal to defend herself against pompous, uncaring doctors and hopeless situations. Her only defenses are words, since a hospital gown and a Boston Red Sox cap offer little protection against a body that has turned into the enemy and a cure that is worse than the disease.
Luckily, she has been given an incredible armament by first time playwright Margaret Edison. Written eight years ago, and winning a host of awards including the 1999 Pulitzer Prize, Drama Desk and New York Drama Critics Circle awards, Wit came about partly through her experiences as a unit clerk in a teaching hospital (other occupations include hot dog seller and convent painter, though Margaret Edison is currently a kindergarten teacher, which gives me renewed hope for our education system). Observing how nurses treated patients with life ending diseases in comparison to the scientifically focused research doctors, she populated Wit with both sides as supporting characters. Liz McCarthy, as the RN Susie Monahan, shows the humanity and caring side of health care professionals. While largely unlearned outside her field, she displays the innate knowledge and consideration necessary to soothe and comfort those at the end of their time. Brian Drillinger, as research fellow Jason Posner, displays the cold, analytical side of research science, forgetting that there are people attached to the charts. He's also the actor I most wanted to meet after the show, to make sure that he was nothing like the character on stage (who gets the award for 'most deserving to be smacked along side the head').
Martin Benson returned to Wit, having directed its world premier at South Coast Repertory Theatre. His direction was fluid, with the high speed, somewhat inhuman pace of hospital life, where the tempo is literally a matter of life, death and efficiency. Scott Weldin designed a sparse and antiseptic box of a world consisting of white sliding panels which, along with Paulie Jenkins' light design, created a harsh, inhuman space, fleshed out by our own memories of hospital visits.
It is my fervent belief that awards for best dramas or musicals should go to shows that not only are artistic triumphs, but which will have a life outside their original runs as well. For these are the shows that further theater and give it an infusion of new life. Wit is all that and more. It is the best drama that I have seen on or come out of Broadway in years, and it achieved something few plays (and even fewer movies or TV shows) manage to do: not only make me feel, but make me think. I left feeling that I not only got to know one of the most three dimensional characters ever created for the stage, but I also learned about an author I had never experienced before. I am sure that there is going to be a run on John Donne's Holy Sonnets (as well as on Advil as people sprain their brains deciphering him), and I plan on being one of them.
Wit runs at Seattle Repertory Theatre through November 20th. For tickets, call the box office at (206) 443-2222. For more information, visit their website at www.seattlerep.org.