Bay Theatre's season-opening production of Margaret Edson's "Wit" may be the most compelling theater experience in the company's 10-year history.
By all critical standards, this show is a winner, starting with artistic director Janet Luby's selection of this honest, powerful drama. A stellar cast provides riveting delivery, the direction is strong and "Wit" has the additional advantage of the Bay technical staff's providing scrupulous attention to detail.
Edson's first play, "Wit" focuses on a 50-year old English professor battling metastasized Stage 4 ovarian cancer. Edson's play reached off-Broadway at Union Square in 1999 and won several awards, including the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, a rare distinction for a first play.
Subsequently, "Wit" has received critical acclaim from New York to Boston to Atlanta, where reviewers pronounced it "a rich resonant piece about language and ideas, philosophy and religion, complex and simple."
Every aspect of the production gets insightful treatment from director Richard Pilcher's smooth flow between monologues and flashback scenes of college classroom encounters. Pilcher's use of a hospital curtain to create hushed natural scene changes works well.
Pilcher is provided assistance in creating authenticity by set designer Ken Sheets, who creates a believable hospital environment in Bay's intimate space. Sheets had the benefit of the professional expertise of medical adviser Dr. Jack Stern, a retired physician who has added authenticity to every exchange between physicians and to their dealings with patient Vivian Bearing.
Stage manager Katherine Kaufmann keeps the complex action moving smoothly and realistically. Also helping to create clinical realism are lighting designer Preston Strawn, sound designer Andy Serb and prop mistress Jo Ann Gidos, who helped assemble medical equipment from Anne Arundel Medical Center and elsewhere.
Judy Nevins' excellent costumes enhance the images of actors portraying medical personnel.
What really makes this intense drama work is Rena Cherry Brown, who inhabits the role of Vivian Bearing, the middle-age John Donne scholar who clings to her academic status while confronting the brutal reality of her medical condition and her own mortality.
In the opening scene, Brown's Vivian confronts the audience directly. Vivian is an uncompromising scholar, equipped to battle academic colleagues and students, smart enough to spar with her medical adversaries as she gains fluency in their language. Her rapier wit initially defines her, bringing humor to her condition and formidability to her role as physicians' adversary.
Brown's Vivian copes with the rigors of chemotherapy by clinging to her own truth, in the form of her John Donne analysis and her status as an English professor. Those familiar with Donne will admire Brown's magnificent recitation of Donne's "Valediction Forbidding Mourning" and of her deep appreciation and understanding of the 17th-century metaphysical poet.
A four-actor ensemble competently delivers difficult medical dialogue: Kelly Armstrong in her Bay debut role; Ryan Brown who may be remembered for his Rumpelstiltskin portrayal in Bay Theatre's "Rumple-Who"; Amy Kellert, who played the Miller's Daughter in the same production; and James Poole, another actor making his Bay debut. Together, they create a realistic quartet of medical personnel who interact on various detached levels with Vivian.
James Laster makes a strong Bay debut in his portrayal of Vivian's primary-care physician, Harvey Kelekian, who projects a distinguished image along with a hint of respect for his patient as he urged her to endure full doses of chemotherapy to benefit his research.
Making his memorable Bay debut, Matt Bassett creates a fascinating young, dedicated medical researcher in Dr. James Posner, who once was Vivian's student and continues to address her as "Professor Bearing." Passionately ambitious, Bassett's Posner may share Vivian's traits, including her discomfort in close social relations.
The one caring, compassionate hospital staff member is nurse Susie Monahan, portrayed by Mundy Spears, seen earlier in Bay's "Beyond Therapy." Spears' Monahan combines academic ignorance with sensitivity to patient needs — an ability to listen to a patient's wishes and reverently honor them.
At the play's end, audiences will have gained a better understanding of medical practitioners striving to combat cancer, as well as the ferocious battle the disease presents to terminally ill patients.
Edson ends her play with a message of human redemption that remained with me days after leaving Bay Theatre.
Performances continue through Nov. 6. Tickets may be ordered at email@example.com or by calling 410-268-1333.