After the breezy romps of “Lend Me a Tenor,” “SantaLand Diaries” and “Little Women,” Coeur d’Alene’s Lake City Playhouse is getting considerably more introspective with its newest production, Margaret Edson’s drama “Wit.”
Directed by Troy Nickerson, the play, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1999, is the intimate study of a stern, independent woman coming to terms with her own place in the world during the final moments of her life.
Her name is Vivian Bearing, played on the LCP stage by Diana Trotter, and she’s dying from Stage 4 ovarian cancer. A 50-year-old college professor specializing in English and 17th-century poetry (John Donne in particular), Vivian is more or less alone – she has no children, she never married, her parents have passed away – save for the doctors, nurses and lab technicians who come and go from her hospital room.
Vivian’s body may be slowly shutting down, but she’s still in control of her own fiery intellect. In monologues delivered directly to the audience (and sometimes to her caretakers), she reflects on her past, her relationship with her father, her academic career and her personal philosophies. Because she rejects outright sentimentalism, preferring instead to face the stark reality of her situation, Vivian is almost hostile toward those charged to take care of her.
In 2001, “Wit” was adapted into an acclaimed and Emmy-winning feature for HBO, directed by Mike Nichols (“The Graduate,” “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”) and starring Emma Thompson in a role that film critic Roger Ebert cited as “her best work on film.” The play had a limited revival on Broadway in 2012, starring Cynthia Nixon in a Tony-nominated turn as Vivian.
“Wit” is one of those rare pieces of theater that confronts such beastly topics as death and disease without trivializing or simplifying them. It’s not a melodrama; it’s a warts-and-all character study. Vivian is more than just a stubborn woman clinging to her last vestiges of pride. She’s not merely a one-note curmudgeon who magically discovers the Meaning of It All. She’s a complex, troubled character, perhaps too cavalier for her own good (as many of us are in the face of illness), who’s forced to accept her own mortality as the end fast approaches.
Death is not as cut-and-dried as most fiction portrays it: It’s messy and agonizing, and it requires compassion to get through. As Vivian says in one of the play’s best passages, “Now is not the time for verbal swordplay. … Now is the time for simplicity. Now is the time for, dare I say it, kindness.”