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Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Artistry Theater
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Kit's review of Little Wars

Sally Wingert and Corey DiNardo
Photo by Hilary Roberts
Wit, written by Margaret Edson in 1991, had its first production at South Coast Repertory Theater in 1995 and a very successful run Off Broadway from 1998 to 2000. Ms. Edson won a mantle full of awards for Wit including the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Despite this, she has written no other plays, and is reportedly quite happy teaching elementary school in Atlanta. No matter, if Wit is to be Edson's only contribution to dramatic literature, it remains a dazzling achievement. It brims with keen observations on the nature of living and dying and depicts the mind as a mighty fortress that, in the end, cannot withstand the onslaught of bodily decay.

Artistry's mounting ofWit gives the play its full due, centered around Sally Wingert's commanding performance as literature professor Vivian Bearing who, we learn from the opening salvo, is dying of ovarian cancer. Ben McGovern's insightful direction builds a foundation of emotional truth that provides a landing place when Vivian's structural framework based on supremacy of the intellect collapses.

Vivian Bearing is a brittle woman, unattached to anyone. Her life has been committed to words—in particular, the words of 17th century English poet John Donne and, even more precisely, to his works known as the "Holy Sonnets." In these poems Donne rails against the finality of death and eschews the notion of damnation. By way of flashbacks, we see Vivian tersely berate any lapses in her students, accepting nothing less than a total grasp of these poems. She is all business, and her business is cultivation of the intellect, with no heed paid to the heart. Because of this, at fifty years of age, there is no one to visit her in the cancer unit, no family or friends for her doctors to contact as her health declines. She is a monument of academic accomplishment, admired but untouched by humanity. Still, Wingert's brilliant portrayal and McGovern's sensitive treatment cause us to care about Vivian. We feel the hurt that lodges within her and grows, finally overtaking her completely—physically, at first, but in the end, emotionally and spiritually as well.

Wit is set on a fully open stage in Artistry's Black Box Theater. There are no built-out walls. Characters enter and exit through the sets of double doors on either side that are used by audiences, cast, and staff members to enter the theater—generic doors like those that would separate one hospital wing from another. The play opens with Wingert, dressed in two hospital gowns (one tied in the back, the other open in the front, like a robe), pulling a medication drip alongside her as she welcomes us to the story of her illness and death.

With deadpan humor she tells us about receiving the diagnosis—but bringing her complaint to the doctor only after completing a taxing but very prestigious article on Donne for the Oxford Encyclopedia. Her condition has not been diagnosed in stage 1, stage 2, or stage 3. She now has stage 4 cancer, and informs us that there is no stage 5. She and her oncologist, Dr. Kelekian, share with one another their common ground as teachers who set the highest of standards for their students. The doctor is a healer, but also a researcher, and he asks Dr. Bearing to submit to an especially high dose of therapy, to run over eight months. He does not know that the aggressive treatment will save her, but sees the opportunity to learn about the effects of such extremes on the patient. She agrees, confident she can stand the pain, and approving of Dr. Kelekian's ambition to expand the pool of knowledge.

One of Dr. Kelekian's students, Dr. Jason Posner, is intent on being a research and feels that the requirement that he serve a clinical internship that includes having to practice bedside manner a colossal waste of time. He also happens to have taken Dr. Bearing's class as an undergraduate, commending her rigor even as he belittles the usefulness of what he learned from her. At times his brusque manner offends Vivian, yet she understands it. To him, she is a text for him to study and learn from, not a patient to be healed, just as she examines Donne's poems for meaning, but not to apply that meaning to live a fuller life. A different perspective comes from Vivian's primary nurse, Susie, who is not a deep thinker but who values and delivers compassion along with health care. In flashbacks, Vivian also introduces us to her mentor, Professor Ashford, who set her on course to demand exactitude in every endeavor. She takes us back even further to her discovery of the power of words from her remote father, who stoked the fires of Vivian's five-year-old intellect, but did not offer emotional nurturing.

It is hard to imagine any other actor in the Twin Cities—or beyond, for that matter—being able to bring Vivian Bearing to life with more authenticity than Sally Wingert. Wingert has no problem appearing to be an intellectual snob, often to droll comic effect, as when Vivian describes her role as the passive subject of the medical residents' Grand Rounds, or goes to pains to explain why she has accepted Susie's offer of a Popsicle in medical terms, rather than admit that she needs the comfort it will bring. As physical pain and spiritual shock eat through Vivian's intellectual armor, Wingert seems to be a person heroically discovering unknown quarters of herself for the first time.

As the compassionate nurse, Cristina Castro is grounded with warmth and steadiness, and projects emotional intelligence as powerful as Jason Posner's academic brain power. As Dr. Posner, the epitome of a smug, over-intellectualizing scientist, rhapsodic over his scientific quest without recognizing its connection to human welfare, Todd Hansen delivers a strong performance. He also very briefly plays Vivian's father. Barbra Berlovitz is superb in the small but essential role of Vivian's mentor. The remaining cast members form an ensemble, taking turns as orderlies, hospital clerks, lab techs, and Vivian's former students.

As stated, the set is as unadorned as an empty first-aid kit, and the costumes conform to typical hospital personal attire, with Wingert wearing the hospital gowns throughout. Mary Shabatura's lighting and C. Andrew Mayer's sound together create the authentic ambience of a hospital, including the experience of sliding in and out of an MRI chamber and the constant background noises coming from hallways and PA systems. Sound and light also bring us in and out of the recesses of Vivian's mind. Through much of the play, Ben McGovern has ensemble members moving about, sitting at the sides, or standing in groups conversing, the constant whirr of hospital activity that seems pointedly indifferent to the very specific drama of the one particular patient whose story is being presented.

The name Edson chose for her protagonist cannot be accidental. Vivian comes from the Latin for life. Bearing can mean relevance, as in "to have bearing upon," or to become oriented, as in "to get one's bearings." Edson's scholar of the Holy Sonnets has survived using wit to find relevance to her life, to orient herself to her life's meaning. Only as the curtain descends on her drama is wit alone not sufficient for Vivian Bearing.

I saw Wit about sixteen years ago in a national tour production that followed its initial Off-Broadway success. It was a compelling and well-crafted play in a solid mounting that moved me deeply. The intimacy of Artistry's Black Box space, the fire power of Sally Wingert's performance, and the raw nerves exposed by Ben McGovern's direction, make this production all the more essential. Perhaps my being sixteen years older and that much closer to Vivian Bearing's fate might be a factor, too. In any case, put this play, in this production, at the top of your must-see list.

Wit continues through May 28, 2017, in the Black Box Theater at Artistry, Bloomington Center for the Arts, 1800 West Old Shakopee Road, Bloomington, MN. Tickets: $30.00; Seniors, age 62 and up: $26.00; Next Generation tickets for age 30 or younger, $9.00. For tickets call 952-563-8375 or go to

Writer: Margaret Edson; Director: Ben McGovern; Costume Design: Annie Cady; Lighting Design: Mary Shabatura; Sound Design: C. Andrew Mayer; Props Design: Katie Phillips; Stage Manager: Sarah Perron; Production Manager/Technical Director: Chris Carpenter.

Cast: Barbra Berlovitz (Dr. Evelyn M. Ashford, PhD.), Cristina Castro (Susie Monahan, R.N., B.S.N.), Corey DiNardo (Jason Posner, M.D.), Jamie Fields (ensemble), Todd Hansen (Harvey Kelekian, M.D./ Mr. Bearing), Mike Swan (ensemble), Carl Swanson (ensemble), Sally Wingert (Dr. Vivian Bearing), Allison Witham (ensemble).

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