“It is not my intention to give away the plot, but I think I die at the end,” quips Vivian Bearing, the eminent, 50-year-old scholar of 17th century English literature who is at the center of “Wit,” Margaret Edson’s 1999 Pulitzer Prize-winning play.
And you can bet that as Bearing begins to shuffle off her mortal coil, her biting, blackly comic sense of humor will come in handy. How else to fight back against the grueling experimental treatments for her Stage 4 “advanced metastatic ovarian cancer” at a Boston teaching hospital — a place where the opening line to every medical practitioner’s visit begins with the annoyingly perky question: “How are you feeling today?”
Edson’s play — the only one this now 55-year-old elementary school teacher (and scholar) has penned to date — is brutally honest, wonderfully literate and, of course, often painfully difficult to watch. But perhaps that is all the more reason to see this production. Directed by Marti Lyons, it features a whip-smart, ultimately crushing performance by Lisa Tejero in a work that comes with all the demands of a solo turn, even though the play also features some crucial supporting characters who have been ideally cast with the same multi-ethnic cross-section now evident in every big-city hospital.
When: Through Feb. 19
Where: The Hypocrites at
The Den Theatre, 1329 N. Milwaukee
Run time: 1 hour and 40 minuteswith no intermission
Bearing’s diagnosis is delivered with plenty of medical textbook jargon and very little emotional empathy by the hospital’s elegant chief oncologist, Dr. Kelekian (Robert Cornelius), who then passes her on to a young resident, Jason Posner (Eduardo Xavier Curley-Carrillo). Jason just happens to have taken one of her literature classes years earlier, a fact that makes this rather laughably squeamish physician even more ill-at-ease when examining her.
Bearing is fiercely strong, and as demanding of herself as she has always been of others. She also is alone, with no husband or partner, no siblings, parents who have already died and university colleagues who never seem to make it to her bedside. So she naturally turns to the poems of John Donne, the brilliant English metaphysical poet in whom she has specialized, and whose work probes matters of life, death and salvation with eloquence and much questioning. In several winningly written and played scenes, Bearing also looks back at the childhood conversation with her father during which she became bewitched by words, and at her rather ruthless treatment of her mostly disengaged students.
Meanwhile, she steals herself against the endless indignities of her treatments, which play havoc with her immune system, and against the nausea and pain (which, in the years since the play was written, have been somewhat mitigated). She also gradually comes to terms with the fact that she will not survive.
The warmest and most consoling of the hospital staff is Bearing’s main nurse, Susie (played to perfection by Adithi Chandrashekar), who shares Popsicles with her patient, and advises her about the “do not resuscitate” order she can choose. Late in the play, Bearing also receives a visit from her mentor (played by Millie Hurley), but whether this is a real visit or an act of kindness Bearing desperately craves and can only imagine, is just ambiguous enough.
Tejero uses her bristling intelligence to fine effect, and expertly deploys body language that suggests the gradual weakening of both her physical being and her will. And, like all the actresses I have seen play this role, she has made the ultimate sacrifice of shaving her head bare to suggest one of the many pernicious effects of chemotherapy.
The one problem that plagues this production is the choice of an in-the-round configuration. “Wit” is a beautifully written play filled with passages of intense poetry and philosophy. And not only are there many acoustic problems in The Den Theatre’s high-ceilinged Heath Main Stage space, but the actors’ faces often get lost as they continually shift their focus so that all sides of the audience get a glimpse of them.
Note: The Hypocrites selected “Wit” as a way of dealing with the Chicago theater community’s loss of “many beloved collaborators and friends, most of whom were taken by illness during 2015,” making the production their “exploration of the complicated feelings that seized us all, and an homage to those we lost.”
Now marking its 20th anniversary as a formidable creative force in Chicago theater, The Hypocrites also are currently undergoing serious life-and-death financial issues of their own. Last week’s benefit staged reading of “Our Town” — director David Cromer’s landmark production for the company in 2008 — went some way toward alleviating the problem which has forced the curtailing of the coming season’s next two shows.
Lisa Tejero stars as a cancer patient in Margaret Edson’s play “Wit,” presented by The Hypocrites. (Photo: Joe Mazza)