ARLINGTON -- You wouldn't think this is a show you want to see.
At first glance, Wit, the drama which opened Theatre Arlington on Friday, does not look very user friendly. It is primarily about cancer and the only thing more universally feared than cancer: 17th century British poetry.
But Wit is such a powerful piece that, if you like your theater with some meat on its bones, you definitely want to experience this highly emotional journey to the end of a life that is spiced with flashes of insight and understanding, and even some humor.
This 1995 play by Margaret Edson, which had its off-Broadway debut in 1998 and a Broadway revival last year, is almost a one-woman show. We come to know Vivian Bearing, Ph.D. (Krista Scott), a literature professor who sees herself as the world's leading expert on the works of British poet John Donne, very well over the course of watching her cancer aggressively treated in an experimental program. The extremely proud and intellectually imposing 50-year-old woman explains her life and lets us in on every detail of the rigors of fighting a battle she cannot win. She brags, jokes and cries out in anguish as the world she once held in such a tight grip unravels around her. It is a painful, but grippingly honest, opening of a soul.
Scott, a widely experienced actress and director who is also a member of the TCU theater faculty, is excellent in the role, but her performance may be a bit tricky for some. The key to appreciating what she does with the part is to understand that it is the character, and the not the actress, who is stiff and overly correct in her manner and speech. Scott's best scenes come when her character's insidious disease erodes her arrogance and invincibility and melts away her rigid formality, because her generally officious demeanor sets up those contrasting moments so well.
The supporting cast makes the most of what little the script asks of them. Stormi Demerson, making her first appearance at Theatre Arlington, is especially easy and natural as Susie Monahan, Bearing's gentle nurse. Jerry Downey, as Bearing's former student and current physician, Dr. Jason Posner, is credible and sympathetic -- perhaps too much so. His coldly clinical character comes across a little warmer than he is written.
The direction by Emily Scott Banks does an especially good job of keeping an inherently talky piece kinetic. She employs some clever and effective staging to keep things in motion and obviously worked closely with lighting director Bryan Stevenson to be sure the finished product works for the eye and the ear.
The set designs of Bob Lavallee are usually dazzling for their scale and showy touches. But in this production, he impresses with artful restraint. His set comprises just a few gauzey curtains, but they serve Banks' plan perfectly.
So Wit - in addition to having extremely intense subject manner not suitable for younger patrons -- is not always a comfortable ride, but it is highly fulfilling. Bearing, through Scott, makes us understand that when the bell tolls for her, it tolls for all of us.