Arts theater review

Sharply funny comedy, terminal illness, and 17th century poetry take center stage

Wit is an engrossing rumination on life and death

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(L-R) Lauren Ellias as Susie and Liz Adams as Vivian in Wit.
Alex Aroyan

By Margaret Edson
Directed by John Geoffrion
Starring Liz Adams, Robert Bonotto, Lauren Elias, Tim Hoover, Dayenne C. B. Walters

Performed by the Hub Theatre Company of Boston
First Church in Boston
66 Marlborough Street, Boston
Playing Nov. 17th through Nov. 19th, 2016

The set is sparse and efficient: a single hospital bed at center stage, nondescript blue curtains along the walls, and small tables and wheelchairs that are moved in and out of sight when necessary. Instead of relying on clunky set pieces, the Hub Theatre Company of Boston’s production of the Pulitzer Prize winning play Wit turns to clever special effects triggered by the manipulation of light and sound. Flashing lights and a familiar click-whir sound effect take the place of what might have been an obstructive MRI machine, allowing the actors and their performances, not the set, to shine. With the stage beginning where the front row of the audience ends, the action is up close and personal, which is apt considering how intimate the subject matter is.

The play begins with a sickly, hospital gown-clad Dr. Vivian Bearing (Liz Adams) hobbling onto stage. She looks at the audience and asks casually how they are doing, thus shattering the fourth wall right off the bat. Dr. Bearing provides sharply funny commentary about her life and memories while also playing the role of a first person narrator and guide throughout the story. This unique rapport between actor and audience allows the play to dip in and out of the past and the present with clarity and precision, which lends a welcome complexity to the art form which can occasionally be restricted by temporal linearity. In many of these asides, she addresses the audience directly, as if confiding in a close friend. In fact, in this friendship, there are no secrets. In the first few minutes alone, she gives the viewers a spoiler alert: by the end of the play, she will have died.

Wit follows Dr. Bearing as she struggles to come to terms with a rapidly-spreading form of ovarian cancer and her inevitable death. It is this inescapability of death looming over herself and the audience that brings gravity and emotional weight to the performances on stage. As a professor of 17th century poetry of John Donne, Dr. Bearing has spent her entire life dissecting Donne’s poems in an effort to better understand the meaning of life, death, and mortality. But Dr. Bearing quickly learns that no amount of study could have prepared her for the terrifying uncertainty that a fatal disease brings.

Liz Adams is spectacular on stage. She successfully imbues each of her lines with mesmerizing perspective and character, giving a performance so committed that she manages to create a nuanced character that can convincingly be witty, solemn, adamant, infuriated, devastated, or flippant. The pain that her illness brings feels palpable, too, and I find myself shrinking in discomfort as I watch her writhing in an agony induced by intensive rounds of chemotherapy. It isn’t overdone or overacted. She simply makes Dr. Bearing feel like a real human being.

Beyond the existential struggles of the protagonist, Wit also explores the healthcare professionals that surround the terminally ill and their approach to end of life care. Some of the characters seemed little more than broadly drawn caricatures, like Dr. Jason Posner (Tim Hoover), the insensitive fellow who values his research far more than human life, or Susie Monahan (Lauren Elias), the simple-minded yet caring nurse. However, the exaggerated and sometimes one-dimensional characterizations had more to do with the scripted actions and dialogue than with the performances of the actors, which were earnest across the board.

Ultimately, Wit is a tour de force of human experience that dares to pose difficult questions about life, death, and the uncertainty of human mortality. Its solemnity and comedy intermix in an intoxicating display of human emotions that successfully keeps the audience laughing, empathizing, and thinking throughout the whole production.