Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco

The Extraordinary Light in Wit

Margaret Edson's drama of integrity, language and humanity came into San Francisco's Curran Theater as part of the Best of Broadway series. This heart wrenching drama starred the brilliant Judith Light.

What an exquisite performance by Ms. Light as Dr. Vivian Bearing, a professor Of 17th century poetry. When she first entered the stage center in a hospital gown and a baseball cap and said to the audience that she was going to die at the end, you know you were in for heart ripping theater.

I know most theater lovers know this is a story of a strong willed, intelligent woman who has been diagnosed with metastatic ovarian cancer. She must face the most aggressive and radical treatment of chemotherapy all the way to the 4th stage. She has to face the emotional cruelty of inhuman doctors and the loneliness of her friendless life.

One would think this would be a depressing intermissionless 100 minutes, but you would be wrong. There was sarcastic humor coming from this great actress. She defies the fact that the doctors look upon her as a mere science experiment for cancer researchers. She is a human being and she is going to let them know it.

This play has been around since 1995 when it opened at the South Coast Rep. However it was changed considerably when it was staged at New Haven's Long Wharf Theatre. It then moved to New York's MCC Theatre in '98, where the critics went wild over the performance of Kathleen Chalfant and the play. The play won the Pulitzer Prize for best drama which it rightly deserved and Ms. Chalfant is now playing the role in London. There will be yet another production at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival this year and it has mostly sold out performances.

One of the differences between the New York Production and this production is the space of the stage. The MCC Theater is a black box of a theater with the audience looking down on the stage. The Curran has a large presidium stage. The play worked successfully on the larger stage. The production took full advantage of the performing spaces to dwarf the humans playing the roles in front of outsized hospital curtains that zip back and forth on tracts to create the play's scenes.

Many of the lines in the play come from the 17th century poet, John Donne, who was one of the most convoluted poets on life and death. His poetry is a running theme in this play. As a student, Professor Bearing studied his poem "Death Be Not Proud". Much is made of a comma lacking in the poem, and she finally realizes that "The insuperable barrier between one thing and another is a comma".

There is a strong supporting cast that helps bring the play to life. Lisa Tharps was wonderful as the devotedly protective nurse and Daniel Sarnelli was admirable as the bright young doctor who had a passion for research but not for the human being. The theater had a full house and not a sound was heard throughout the 100 minutes with the exception of laugher at the wit in this play and the extraordinary delivery of this great actress.

As one watched Ms. Light progress from somewhat healthy body to an almost a wasted human being, you could feel the sympathy and patois coming from audience. At the last scene, there was hardly a dry eyed in the house and that included Eddy and myself. This is acting at the finest. If I had seen the play in the last century, I would say this would have been one of the greatest performances of the century. However since this is a new century, it is safe to say, this will be one of the great performances of the 21st Century. Certainly one of the greatest in my limited lifetime.

Just one final note on this play. It is hard to watch if you have had loved ones die of the dreaded disease. I had relatives, my mother, and friends die of cancer and I had a hard time watching the play. However, I am glad I did, since I would have missed a brilliant performance. The play runs through May 28 at the Curran. Tickets are $32.50 to $58.


- Richard Connema

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