One might think watching a play about cancer would be a depressing way to spend an evening. But Lake City Playhouse’s production of “Wit,” by Margaret Edson, defies those expectations in a deft and witty way.
“Wit” is essentially a series of monologues, peppered by short scenes, delivered by Vivian Bearing, a professor of 17th century poetry who has two hours to live. She is a scholar of the poet John Donne, whose works and themes are woven throughout the script. Bearing is not given to chuckle, chortle or guffaw, but she has a biting wit that adds much to the story.
Bearing is a character with a big personality to fill, and Diana Trotter, with her petite frame, embodies it quite well. In lesser hands, the character’s soliloquies might become dull, but Trotter finds the right balance between a lecture and conversation. As the play progresses, and as cancer eats at her bones, she becomes less stalwart in her beliefs and knowledge. It takes this near-death experience for the woman to realize she could have done things differently, that maybe she should have shown her students mercy rather than harsh judgment. If only she could receive human – and humane – treatment from the doctors.
Trotter has the audience at “Hi.”
Lake City Playhouse’s production, directed by Troy Nickerson, is well staged with a simple set and scenes delineated by skillfully executed lighting cues. The final dramatic minute of the play is perfectly lit.
There are many memorable moments in this piece, but two in particular stand out: the doctor-patient interaction in which Bearing learns she has cancer and her recitation from Donne’s “Holy Sonnets” in the play’s final scene: “And gluttonous death will instantly unjoint / my body and my soul.”
It is sad to see such a strong woman succumb to an illness beyond her control, but Bearing never loses her wit.
She is comforted and helped by a nurse, Susie, portrayed by Janelle Frisque as quite natural and kind. The unfeeling doctors, Posner (Brandon Montang) and Kelekian (Dave Rideout), inadvertently add to the humor of the play.
Bearing’s former literature teacher, Professor Ashford (Wendy Carroll), illuminates Donne’s poem “Death Be Not Proud,” as well as the play and humans’ state of being, best: “Nothing but a breath, a comma, separates life from the afterlife.”