It is with great apprehension that I write this review of the Curtainbox Theatre Company's production of Wit, fearing I will not do it justice. The script's themes are so distressing and touching, the show's direction so meticulously wrought, and the lead actress' portrayal so rivetingly intense that I don't have the words to convey the depth to which Friday's production pierced the theatre space... and my heart. I left humbled, and will likely re-evaluate my priorities in life for days to come, certain that the production will result in a permanent change in my perspectives. That's how profoundly moving Wit is.
Playwright Margaret Edson's work concerns Vivian Bearing (Corinne Johnson), a professor of 17th Century poetry with a particular fondness for John Donne's Holy Sonnets. It begins with her diagnosis of stage IV metastatic ovarian cancer and follows Vivian's story to its inevitable end - which I don't mind telling you here, since Vivian, in one of many monologues, reveals her fate at the start of the play. With her bent toward the academic at the expense of the emotional, Vivian is a woman who would be hard to like in real life, and initially - and superficially - gets the audience's sympathy solely for being a cancer patient. Yet Vivian earns that sympathy as the play progresses, detailing her battle with cancer and her love of metaphysical wit, all the while offering glimpses of a vulnerability she protects behind her superior intellect. This woman with the solid exterior is softer inside than she'd like you to know, but our knowing it makes her beautiful, lovable, and, perhaps most importantly for the audience, relatable.
Director Philip William McKinley's work here is abundantly clear, with the show's fastidious detail well-executed by his cast. The movement throughout the piece plays out like a well-choreographed dance, from the ensemble's rolling of Vivian's wheelchair through the set's partition curtains (resembling those of a hospital room), to the moving of set pieces on and off the stage, to the timing of exactly when Johnson simply sits down in a chair. It's stunning in its detail, and made even more so by not coming across as overly calculated.
If Wit is a dance, then Johnson is its prima ballerina. She bears almost the entire weight of the play's poignancy, under which a lesser actress would surely crack. Johnson, though, does not, attacking the deep emotion of her character with abandon, and projecting a clearly condescending air as she pontificates about Donne's poetry. Her guttural screams of pain, however, are what chilled me to the bone, driving home the anguish that is cancer and its treatment. And somewhere in the midst of all this, Johnson manages to exude the defiant, triumphant self-assurance I've noted in many cancer patients, but increasingly shades it with a growing human need for companionship, for love.
Eddie Staver III and Jessica Sheridan personify Vivian's thinker/feeler duality as the cold, clinical researcher, Dr. Jason Posner, and the warmhearted nurse, Susie. Staver maintains a systematic emotional disconnect with Johnson's character, offering just enough vocal pauses to hint at a heart that could connect with his patient, and allowing us the hope that Jason eventually will see Vivian as more than mere research. And Sheridan reveals Susie's sympathetic quality in her speech, speaking in the lighter upper register of her voice, but with no absence of sincerity. It is her task to give Wit its heart, which she does with a warmth that plays very much as real; instead of just acting the part, Sheridan seemingly manages to be her character. (Also realistic is lighting designer Adam Parboosingh's concept for the x-rays taken during Vivian's treatment. His quick flashes of bright light in a clearly defined rectangular shape over Johnson's torso are striking, especially when accompanied by Joseph Janz's effective sound design.)
The Curtainbox Theatre Company's Wit is so well-conceived and deeply emotional that it rises above the average theatre experience, pulling you into its heartfelt core, rather than leaving you simply sitting on the sidelines. This company consistently raises the bar for local theatre. (I still rave about 2008's Danny & the Deep Blue Sea and 2009's Glengarry Glen Ross.) With Wit, I think the Curtainbox has significantly raised the bar for itself.
For more information and tickets, call (563)322-8504 or visit TheCurtainbox.com.
Thom White covers entertainment news for WQAD Quad Cities News 8.