Margaret Edson’s Pulitzer Prize winning play Wit, an exquisitely literate and dramatically poignant piece, would certainly suffer in the hands of less than able artists. Fortunately, The Seeing Place Theater production currently running at The Paradise Factory is in well-talented hands and does the material proud.
Director Brynn Asha Walker (who also provides sound design and plays Nurse Susie Monahan) has carefully shaped this production for maximum impact, cultivating Stage Four ovarian cancer patient/professor Dr. Vivian Bearing’s (Erin Cronican) gripping descent from dignity to death in a compelling manner. The lighting design by Scott Monnin coupled with Phoenix Lion’s projections of well-placed phrases from the script artfully provide mood and thought provocation, all enhanced by Walker’s sound design.
As Susie, Walker’s care and concern for Bearing is tender and compassionate. Actors Robin Friend as Dr. Posner and Walker subbing for an indisposed Christopher James Murray as Dr. Kelekian, respectively, subtly navigate the cool and disturbing detachment that pointedly highlights their priority for research over Bearing’s individual life and suffering. Janice Hall provides an anchoring performance as Bearing’s former professor E.M. Ashford, a role that explains much of Bearing’s character early in her life and adds a touching moment at its conclusion.
Cronican’s performance as Dr. Vivian Bearing, a specialist in the metaphysical poetry of John Donne, is captivating, by turns imperious and arrogant, funny, and vulnerable. Her desperation to remain in control of her impossible situation is heartbreaking, yet she hangs onto her grace and self-respect with an admirable strength of character. Cronican embodies the role as though she might herself be a Stage Four cancer patient.
Oh, wait, per the publicity statement, Cronican is a real-life Stage Four cancer patient. And Robin Friend (Dr. Posner) is a real-life recent cancer survivor. And Walker (director; Nurse Monahan) is Cronican’s real-life wife and caregiver.
As a Stage One cancer survivor myself, I am genuinely moved by Cronican’s personal story. When she mentioned after the show that she was grateful to still be able to be in this production even after it was put on hold due to the pandemic, I put my hand to my heart in empathy, recognizing how precious, valuable, and short her time might be. I was also heartened to hear Friend described as a cancer “survivor,” like myself; I’m sure he’s as grateful as I am to be cancer free at present, living in the current moment and doing his best to avoid future fear of recurrence. I’m further inspired to hear that Cronican has Walker to share in her life at this difficult point.
However, does the personal reality of these actors add any more credibility to their performances? By all means come see for yourself. From this viewer’s point of view, however, this production fortunately remains a beautifully acted play and does not need to depend on my knowledge of the actors’ personal stories. Prevailing evidence shows that reality television stars aren’t guaranteed to be good actors just because they’re telling their life stories, and cancer patients are not guaranteed to be good actors just because they’re playing cancer patients either.
The good news is that Cronican, Friend and Walker play their parts with credible acting skills. Hall and Murray certainly turn in excellent performances without any such leg up in their personal lives.
Would I find an actor playing the role of a rape victim any more convincing if I knew he or she was an actual rape victim? I hope not. If I knew about that fact and thought about it even once during their performance, then I’d just be eavesdropping on the actor’s personal life instead of allowing myself to be swept up by their performance. I no more need this extra information than I need to see real blood spilled on stage.
Wit is a beautiful play and is enjoying a beautiful production by The Seeing Place Theater. See and hear this production on its own merit.
Wit (through January 16, 2022)
The Seeing Place at The Paradise Factory
64 E 4th Street, East Village, in Manhattan
For tickets, visit http://www.theseeingplacetheater.com
Running time: one hour and 40 minutes without an intermission