Theater
10:39 am
Mon June 3, 2002

Wit

A Broadway hit, "Wit" revolves around a female professor's tragicomic battle with cancer.

Providence, RI –

Samuel Johnson said that death concentrates the mind. In our touchy-feely age, mortality is also expected to do wonders for the heart. In our movies and plays, death provides more of a lesson in humility than a tussle with the spiritual.

Perhaps that explains the popularity of Margaret Edson's "Wit." It is a moving script about extinction in our secular age, where matters of the heart rule. A strict female English professor named Vivian Bearing learns to be soft the hard way. A specialist in the 17th century poetry of John Donne, the teacher learns she has advanced ovarian cancer. The experimental treatment she chooses is as lethal as the disease. The scrappy woman accepts her final challenge alone. She has no family. Her cool-hearted doctors see her as a tough specimen whose suffering offers information for the future. Among the health care professionals, only a sympathetic nurse provides the kindness the teacher yearns for near the end.

To her credit, Edson never lets "Wit" become morbid or exploitative. The professor comes off as a tenacious personality who does not go gentle into that good night, at least as long as she has a tongue in her head. The professor wisecracks to the audience, deflating the indignity of her decaying body and her caretakers' indifference. She tries to maintain control by hurling deadpan insults at her doctors. Or she recalls her classes, where clueless students couldn't tell the difference "between sonnets and steak sandwiches."

As the dying teacher, Anne Scurria gives a direct but ultimately flawed performance. Part of the problem is that Scurria tends to underplay her character's bossiness. We must be convinced that, at least at the beginning, Vivian is an imperious scholar who through the course of the play learns to accept the simple rewards of humanity. From the get-go, Scurria projects a soft and amusing image. The actress's comic skills are a little too much in evidence. Scurria is effective during some harrowing moments, particularly when Vivian becomes gaunt and pain-ridden. But, overall, Scurria is comfortably comic rather than tartly compelling.

The same could be said of Peter Sampieri's broad direction, which tries too hard to cut against the play's stereotypes: doctors are unfeeling technicians; eggheads are cut off from real life. The upshot is that the Trinity Repertory Theatre production is a serviceable, rather than inspirational, rendition of "Wit," an affecting tragicomic fable about the inevitable triumph of the body over the mind.

"Wit" runs through June 30 at the Sarah and Joseph Dowling Theater in Providence, Rhode Island. For tickets, call (401) 351- 4242.