The Soul of Wit

— In his youth, John Donne (1572-1631) was a hot Metaphysical poet who wrote salacious verses and thought Shakespeare, his elder by eight years, a doddering oaf. Donne yoked religious language and topical references to his love poetry. In Elegie 15 ("Going to Bed"), for example, the randy speaker calls his mistress "my America, my new-found-land/ My Kingdome, safeliest when with one man man'd."

Donne made a transformation as sweeping as Shakespeare's Prince Hal to King Henry V. In 1621, "Jack Donne," the witty rake (at least in his imagination), became "Dr. Donne," Dean of St. Paul's Cathedral. In Margaret Edson's Wit, Vivian Bearing, a Donne scholar, must make a metamorphosis almost as difficult.

During a severe illness in 1623, Donne wrote that "No man is an island, entire of itself." Vivian Bearing has lived as if surrounded by water. She assumed that if she became "a little world made cunningly," she could keep the slings and arrows of banal old reality at bay. (One of the first things her teacher-mentor, E.M. Ashford, told her: revise her essay on Donne later; "Go out. Enjoy yourself with your friends." But Vivian went back to the library.)

When Wit begins, Vivian is 50, barefoot, wearing doubled hospital gowns, and hooked to a portable IV pole. A red baseball cap covers most of her bald head. She has fourth-stage ovarian cancer. There's no fifth, she tells the audience, with whom she finds it hard to be informal. She knows the play's about her and doesn't want to give away the plot ("but I think I die at the end"). During the last third of the 90-minute piece, even the play escapes her control.

Always quick to display academic credentials, Vivian flashes back to her intellectual development. We watch her lecture. She even frets about a semicolon inaccurately substituted for a comma. She's an elitist snob, proud of her "uncompromising" nature. "I know all about life and death," she boasts. "I am, after all, a scholar of Donne's Holy Sonnets, which explore mortality in greater depth than any other body of work in the English language." But when mortality trumps elitism, "We are discussing my life and my death" -- and metaphysical wit be hanged.

The playwright plunks this rigid control freak into an environment where she loses her bearings. A doctor and clinicians -- who deem themselves as superior in their field as Vivian did in hers -- envision a radical experiment: eight cycles of superdrug-chemotherapy, full dose. Vivian, who dreads normalcy, accepts the challenge. In the eyes of some researchers, she's little more than a lab rat providing data "to quantify the complications of the puzzle." A morphine drip, though it will blank her mind, could keep her alive longer than a Patient-Controlled Analgesic. And why resuscitate her when her heart stops? More data.

The stark clashes and grave extremes in Wit -- life and death, humane and inhumane treatment of hospital patients, the ornate versus the simple, being "smart" versus being "kind" -- have the dazzle of Metaphysical poetry. But, and also like Donne, the playwright laces the text with wit (small w). Vivian's humor helps her find a kind of grace.

The night I caught the North Coast Rep's outstanding production, two people walked out about halfway through. This was a compliment. Wit should be uncompromising. Amid MDs with clipboards and scurrying nurses and aides, you watch a proud woman wither and die of cancer. NCRT and director David Hay put no smile on grim details.

What the exiting couple missed was Vivian's beaming into an 11th-hour wholeness -- and the completed arc of Rosina Reynolds's gritty, deeply human performance. As Vivian breaks down, Reynolds sheds protective layers and grows from an island to, as Donne wrote, "a piece of the continent...involved in mankind." We may see more acting of this high quality in 2007, though I doubt we'll see better.

Nanci Burrows and Dennis Henry head the supporting cast and function as good and evil angels. Burrows plays Susie Monahan, a nurse who may seem overly yummy to those who've never seen -- as I have with both my parents -- a selfless caregiver minister to the dying (anyone who has lost a loved one to cancer will watch two stories during Wit: Edson's and theirs, which may explain why the couple left).

Dennis Henry makes Jason Posner, the evil angel M.D., an unrepentant Vivian: left-brain dominant, bedside-manner-deficient. Henry's smart choices don't overemphasize these traits; they fall where they may (in one of the few places where the playwright spoonfeeds significance to the audience, Edson gives Jason an insight: John Donne, he says, suffered from "salvation anxiety"; Edson may be right, but it's hard to believe data-obsessed Jason'd see it).

Vivian's mentor frets about punctuation in Donne's Holy Sonnet #6 ("And death shall be no more, comma, Death thou shalt die"). A comma splice should separate the independent clauses, she contends, because "nothing but a breath -- a comma separates life from life everlasting."

The NCRT production offers visual evidence of this contention. Marty Burnett's scenic design has no "insuperable barriers"; no semicolons. The stage is bare, save for curtains, like those in a hospital, that open and close and change scenes in a single breath.

***

FIELD NOTES: SOME WORDS ABOUT "W;T"

1.) The late Louis Martz, former Sterling Professor at Yale and author of The Poetry of Meditation, defined wit as "intellectual quickness, inventive and constructive ability, a talent for uttering brilliant things, the power of amusing surprise," and "a desire to startle readers."

2.) Doctor Samuel Johnson, who believed life itself was startling enough, argued that the Metaphysical poets, and Donne especially, yoked their spectacular images "by violence together."

3.) Michael Shurtleff, the famous casting director, bemoaned wit's absence in contemporary theater: "Wit is the taking pleasure in words, in the way things are phrased. Wit is a highly polished competitive game, but since it's intellectual (a dirty word, to be eschewed at any cost) and requires the use of the mind, it's in very short supply...No wonder actors don't know what it is, since they've been raised on television, where the lowest common denominator is what determines what's funny and where people don't laugh at laugh lines, machines do.

Wit, by Margaret Edson

North Coast Repertory Theatre, 987 Lomas Santa Fe Drive, Solana Beach

Directed by David Hay; cast: Rosina Reynolds, Sandra Eagye, Dennis Henry, John Herzog, Michael Imdieke, Sunny Smith, Diana Sparta; scenic design, Marty Burnett; costumes, Jeanne Reith; lighting, Mia Bane Jacobs; sound, Matt Lescault-Wood

Playing through May 13; Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Sunday at 7:00 p.m. Matinee Sunday at 2:00 p.m. 858-481-1055.

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