COSTA MESA — Vivian Bearing, Ph.D, believes she understands life and death. She is, after all, the country's foremost scholar on the 17th-Century poet John Donne, who, she says, explored mortality "better than any other writer in the English language."
The trouble is, Dr. Bearing has stage-four ovarian cancer and "there is no stage five." The doctors with whom she consults don't have time to debate the fine points of metaphysical poetry. Adrift in awful, uncharted territory, she begins to sense that though Donne gave her a way to live, he is going to be almost no use at all in helping her find a way to die.
Theater of the hospital room is by now a familiar genre: "The Shadow Box," "The Normal Heart," "Marvin's Room" and many others have all shown that there can be drama in a character's acceptance of the place where there is no drama.
Margaret Edson makes a notable and graphic contribution to the genre in her first play, "Wit," in its world premiere at South Coast Repertory.
Megan Cole gives a beautiful and valiant performance as Vivian Bearing, a character who shares every vomitive, degrading agony brought on by intensive chemotherapy. She also suffers from dispassionate treatment at the hands of doctors who--like the scholar she once was when "I had shoes, eyebrows"--are more interested in the theoretical than in the emotional.
If the audience must avert its eyes at some points, at others it is glued to this exacting woman whose love affair with the work of Donne and his "capacious, agile wit" has been the reigning passion of her life. Dying at 50 and without any visitors, she amuses herself by baiting the jaded nurses and technicians, by inventing her epitaph ("She published and perished.") and by reliving scenes from her life--her intellectual life, that is.
Wearing only a hospital gown, her shaved head covered in a blue baseball cap emblazoned with the letter "C," Cole's strong-boned face and kind eyes stare hard into anyone who talks to her. Her Vivian is an intense, almost scarily composed listener. Lips pursed, she always seems to hold on to the hope, however fragile, that the object of her stare will say something that is worthwhile.
Meanwhile, Vivian Bearing is quite certain that whatever she has to say is worthwhile. The play's chief flaw is that Dr. Bearing is not entirely credible as a Donne scholar because she describes the high quality of her own work with as much or more passion than she finds in the work of Donne himself.
"No one is quite as good as I!" she notes in one of many such endorsements. She bristles with pride: "My book was a great success. I summarize previous critical interpretations of the text and offer my own analysis." For a scholar, that goes without saying. Edson puts too much emphasis on Bearing's opinion of herself and not enough on the proof of her excellence. Though Bearing gives an elegant (if abbreviated) lecture on one of Donne's many sonnets about death, the play is missing that blinding burst of insight on what makes Donne great and why the poet has fueled this character's life.
The case for Bearing's emotional deficiency is likewise a little threadbare. Edson gives us a cultured and curious 50-year-old woman who has no friends and no personal memories to speak of, except for those dealing with the development of her intellectual acuity.
Vivian's one hospital visitor is an old mentor, Dr. Ashford (Patricia Fraser), the professor who taught her disdain for unscrupulously edited volumes of Donne that attributed to him melodramatic exclamation marks. In a writer as precise as Donne, Dr. Ashford taught, a single comma can signify something as profound as the breath between living and dying.
Vivian comes to long for those melodramatic exclamation points she long ago excised from her life. She learns, a little late, that there was a place for them all along. But even a hospital ward can be a place for learning. At first, Vivian winces at the touch of a kind nurse (Mary Kay Wulf). She soon learns to crave it and then, how to wheedle it, and finally how to earn it.
Under director Martin Benson, the set and blocking are simple, keeping the focus on impressive performances from all three actresses. As a brisk older doctor and his smug young counterpart, Richard Doyle and Brian Drillinger have far less shading to play.
A tough play with a riveting central character, "Wit" seems a little short of reaching its full potential. Vivian Bearing would probably give it one more rewrite.
"Wit," Second Stage at South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center, Costa Mesa, Tue.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sat. and Sun., 2:30 p.m.; Sun., 7:30 p.m. Ends Feb. 26. $24-$34. (714) 957-4033. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes.
Megan Cole: Vivian Bearing
Richard Doyle: Harvey Kelekian
Mary Kay Wulf: Susie Monahan
Patricia Fraser: E.M. Ashford
Brian Drillinger: Jason Posner
Others: Christopher DuVal, Kyle Jones, Stacy L. Porter
A South Coast Repertory production. By Margaret Edson. Directed by Martin Benson. Scenic designer Cliff Faulkner. Costumes by Kay Peebles. Lights by Paulie Jenkins. Original music and sound by Michael Roth.