The story almost all takes place in the hospital and in the present. 50-year-old Dr. Vivian Bearing, professor of 17th century metaphysical poetry specializing in John Donne, has been diagnosed with stage 4 metastatic ovarian cancer. “There is no stage 5,” she tells us.
She narrates the story for us and we watch her when she learns of her diagnosis, when she is reminiscing about her successful academic career, when she is undergoing medical exams, when she pukes her brains out into a bucket, when she is screaming and writhing in pain from the effects of the full dosage medication the doctor gives her, and lastly, when she walks from this world into the next. Through this all, we see, as the play’s description reads, “her intellectual armour giv[ing] way to her need for human kindness.”
Katharine Venour, who plays Vivian Bearing, did a thoroughly convincing job as an unrelentingly hard academic and as a cancer patient whose pain, fears, and vulnerability felt entirely believable. Her dry humour and cynicism gave her a lot of funny lines and I laughed much more than I thought I would in a play about a woman dying of cancer.
In pondering the play more and more though, I can’t remove the niggling feeling that something was missing.
I think it had to do with the fact that as sympathetic as Vivian was, I didn’t know her very well, and it’s hard for me to fully embrace a character that I don’t know. This is more an issue I have with the storyline.
Because Vivian is such a demanding professor who puts research above relationships, no one comes to visit her in the hospital (except at the very end, her old professor played by Erla Faye Forsyth shows up and reads her Runaway Bunny in one of the most touching and human scenes of the play).
When the young Dr. Jason Pozner doing his fellowship takes Vivian’s medical history, we learn that her parents have died and she has no siblings. This accounts for no immediate family members visiting her in the hospital, but what about an uncle, an aunt, even a cousin? One of the best ways to know someone is to watch them with their family, but aside from one flashback between Vivian and her distant father, we aren’t shown any family. I know this is part of the point—to show how isolated Vivian is—and I know some people just don’t have any siblings—but I find it difficult to really know, and hence connect with a character (in a novel or play), if I don’t see them with people who share some common history.
There’s a really funny line when Dr. Pozner asks Vivian some questions like, “Ever been married?” “Every been pregnant?” to which the answer is “no”, and then in his casually charming and completely insensitive way, “Okay, well that’s it for life history.” Vivian responds with one of her many wry asides to the audience that goes something like, “Yup, because that’s all my life history.” We laugh because of course there’s more to a person/a woman than marriage or kids, but the play doesn’t actually fill in those gaps of her life story so all we know is she’s an excellent and exacting Donne scholar and she has no family or friendships. I wanted a bit more.
On the other hand, you could say this missing piece highlights a central theme of the play in reminding us of what really matters in life (and death).
Thankfully, we witness a thread of friendship in the short relationship Vivian develops with a compassionate nurse named Susie.
Being a Donne fan myself, I highly enjoyed all the quotations and references to his work (the classroom scene was superb). His Holy Sonnet X got the most air time, and Vivian’s professor delivered a gripping speech near the beginning on why there should be a comma and not a colon between “more” and “Death” in the last line. It is not an awkward and abrupt semicolon that separates us from life and death. It is a breath, a whisper, a comma.
Death be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for, thou art not so,
For, those, whom thou think’st, thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poore death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleepe, which but thy pictures bee,
Much pleasure, then from thee, much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee doe goe,
Rest of their bones, and souls deliverie.
Thou art slave to Fate, Chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poyson, warre, and sicknesse dwell,
And poppie, or charmes can make us sleepe as well,
And better than thy stroake; why swell’st thou then;
One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally,
And death shall be no more, Death, thou shalt die.
My favourite audio version of this poem is in this opening to Canadian spoken word poet Shane Koyczan‘s Move Pen Move, which, no matter how many times I hear it, moves every piece of me.
Wit is showing at Pacific Theatre until tomorrow, June 11.