By Margaret Edson. Directed by Angela Konrad. A Pacific Theatre production. At Pacific Theatre on Friday, May 20. Continues until June 11
Despite its Pulitzer Prize, Margaret Edson’s Wit isn’t as good as it looks at first.
The script is about Vivian, a literary academic who is dying of ovarian cancer. Vivian’s specialty is the metaphysical poetry of John Donne and the play examines mortality through that lens—so, in some ways, it’s ambitious and smart. Early on, Vivian’s academic mentor, E.M., releases an outraged diatribe about melodramatic punctuation in later renderings of Donne’s poetry: her rant is hilariously petty, entirely supportable, and, ultimately, moving in its defence of beauty.
And you’d have to be made of stone not to be touched by the core story of Wit: a vital, courageous character expires in front of our eyes. (Vivian warns us at the outset that she thinks she dies at the end.)
Wit is not consistently satisfying, however. The dynamics between Vivian and Jason, the resident who attends her, are simplistic. Jason is so fixated on research that, to him, Vivian might as well be a lab rat. I’m not saying that this attitude is entirely unrealistic, but, as presented in the play, it is one-note and extreme. Thematically, the script gets repetitive. It’s obvious from the start that Vivian’s intellectual arrogance will buckle in the face of her mortality. The script’s central idea, that because we all need compassion, kindness trumps intelligence, is worthy, but it’s not complex.
The play also suffers narratively because it doesn’t deeply explore Vivian’s relationships—or the lack of them. The central connection is between Vivian and her primary nurse, Susie, but Susie is an emblematic figure: stalwart, practical, and humble. And, in this Pacific Theatre production, which was directed by Angela Konrad, Julie Casselman underplays the role: she is honest, but so casual and even hard to hear that the dramatic anchor that Susie could provide all but dissolves.
Vivian is written for a relatively showy kind of performance: she’s a brassy bag off the top and then she crumbles. Katharine Venour, who’s playing Vivian, is an excellent actor whose default mode is restraint and her approach mutes the play’s dynamics somewhat. Nonetheless, Venour’s work is witty, moving, and true.
Dan Amos gets all of the awkward humour and deep nerdiness that’s written into Jason. And Erla Faye Forsyth is perfection as E.M., the mentor. When E.M. visits Vivian late in the play, their interaction is heartbreaking.
With its curved white walls, John Webber’s set is appropriately sterile and claustrophobic. And Corina Akeson’s understated sound design supports the story’s emotional content without blatantly manipulating the audience.
Pacific Theatre’s Wit moved me at times, but I wanted it to take me deeper—probably deeper than the script is capable of going.