"Wit" at the IU Theatre is a potently involving and moving tale of a bravely complex person marshalling her entire intellectual and physical resources in a life and death struggle with cancer. In the hands of director Danielle Howard and actress Casey Searles, it’s also very funny
"Wit" at the IU Theatre is Margaret Edson’s play based on her work as a low level administrator in a cancer center. I say based on, but perhaps reaction to, would be a better way to put it. As Edson searched for a main character she thought about a variety of possibilities, but fastened on the figure of an imperious college professor, an expert on the intricately fashioned fusion of complex thought and passionate feeling in the works of John Donne. Edson’s Professor Vivian Bearing is a proudly intellectual woman and "Wit" is a tale of her struggle with and through terminal cancer.
From the moment that Casey Searles walked onto the stage at the Wells-Metz as Vivian Bearing, barefoot, dragging her IV, wearing a regulation hospital gown with an incongruous baseball cap covering her hairless head, she owned her character and the play. The audience saw her move from a secure woman dryly parsing the differences between "I feel good," and "I am well," to an agonized patient of chemo-therapy considerably more passionately analyzing the phrase "barf my brains out." By the way, here’s a quibble. In playwright Edson’s efforts to heighten the drama she makes her hospital staff pretty cold and mechanical. My own recollections of my brother’s struggles in cancer research hospital are full of memories of marvelously supportive and friendly staff.
Surrounding Searles are Gargi Shinde as the professor who inspired her fascination with John Donne and her academic career, Josh Hambrock as a cancer researcher who’s retained some of his interest in the actual patients, Brian Stoller as a younger researcher who’s more fascinated with the cancer itself and his own career than the actual patients and Clair Tuft as a sympathetic nurse.
"Wit" is played on the bare floor of the Wells-Metz with the audience on three sides. I was on a side and initially had trouble as the actress alternately directly addressed my side and then the other. There are minimal props: a desk for a doctor’s office and a professor’s study, a set of chairs for a college classroom, a couple of examining tables, a wheel chair and a hospital bed with its usual accoutrements, are expertly marshaled about. Jesse Portillo’s lighting and sound did some neat things presenting the hospital’s examining machinery.
Margaret Edson’s "Wit" is a deep play with a combination of thought and feeling that is risky enough to heart renderingly bookend the complexities of John Donne and advanced cancer protocols with Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit stories and Margaret Wise Brown’s "The Runaway Bunny." It plays each evening in the Wells-Metz Theatre of the Lee-Norvelle Theatre and Drama Center at seven-thirty through Saturday.
You can listen to an interview with director Danielle Howard on our Arts Interviews page .