Vivian Bearing emerges from behind enormous plastic curtains. She’s 50, wears two hospital gowns. Under a beige baseball cap, which covers her bald head, she has no eyebrows. She has stage-four metastatic ovarian cancer, she tells us. There is no stage five. “It is not my intention to give away the plot, but I think I die in the end.”
She has, in fact, “less than two hours to live.” She hoped her story would be more heroic. After all, she’s engineered her entire life toward greatness — or, more accurately, to prove her superiority to others.
“I know all about life and death,” she boasts. “I am, after all, a scholar of [John] Donne’s Holy Sonnets, which explore mortality in greater depth than any other body of work in the English language.”
And, true: she may know where commas should go, or how to identify a lascivious litotes. But she has no sense of his achingly human content. As she faces her own end, Bearing understands for the first time the poet who wrote “No man is an island.”
Donne (1572–1631) believed that everything is connected. Any funeral bell, he wrote, “diminishes me,/ Because I am involved in mankind,/ And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;/ It tolls for thee.”
Bearing also discovers that Donne isn’t just showing off in his poems and sermons. He’s shepherding people to their exit.
Margaret Edson’s Pulitzer Prize winner Wit (1999) has been justly praised for its frank, eloquent portrait of a woman dying of cancer. Edson worked for a year in the patient room of a cancer-research hospital. This experience packs the 90-minute comedy-drama with insights about our last days, about America’s dread of mortality, and about acceptance, kindness, and grace.
Toward the end, Vivian admits she “thought being extremely smart would take care of it.” For her, the simple statement’s a revelation. Her college mentor lambasted an essay about Donne’s “Death be not proud.” Vivian didn’t see that the poem is about breaking down “the seemingly insuperable barriers separating life, death, and eternal life.”
Then her teacher made a radical suggestion: “Don’t revise the paper,” she said. “Go out, enjoy the sun and her friends.” Instead, Vivian “went back to the library” and became a famous scholar: “I am, in short, a force.” She assumed that being “smart” would take care of “it,” i.e., living.
Flashbacks show her almost profound disconnection to the world (even her name suggests that life — viv — was something she had to “bear”). As Wit unfolds and her identity becomes reduced to computer readouts and cc’s of fluid, Vivian’s spirit awakens. She discovers connections. She also reaches a time for “dare I say it, kindness” — and finds redemption.
In an interview, Edson told a reporter, “I’m not saying that smart is bad. Smart is not bad, but kind is good.”
Deborah Gilmour Smyth is giving one of 2013’s finest performances. As Vivian Bearing, Smyth treads where actors fear. She demolishes one emotional barrier after another. In the end she is naked, figuratively and — for a brief, tastefully staged moment — literally.
Smyth has a natural ability to charm audiences. Here she scraps all tendencies to endear. At first she is cold, as distant as a star, and deems herself superior in all things (she has studied John Donne, she brags, as a way to show “how good you really are”). In subtle stages, as Bearing’s body breaks down, Smyth slowly emerges from a layered cocoon: light and airy, and ready to take the final step.
Talent runs deep in the Lamb’s cast, excellently directed by Robert Smyth. Jason Heil, in particular, crafts a funny/creepy portrait as Dr. Jason Posner. A mite inept, determined to make a name for himself, Posner’s a young Vivian (even was a student of hers); his negative bedside manner rivals her icy classroom persona. On several occasions, Heil elicited backhanded compliments when the audience shuddered with “I know that inhumane attitude” recognition.
Typical of Edson’s writing, Dr. Posner is a complex creation. Though ego-thick and research-first, he also coins the expression “salvation anxiety,” which runs through the play like an electric current.
Craig Noel Award winner Sylvia M’Lafi Thompson gives Vivian’s mentor, E.M. Ashford, appropriate stature. And her final scene, reading a children’s story, is priceless.
Other performances, especially by Cynthia Peters and Jim Chovick, make valuable contributions without calling attention to themselves. Same for Nate Parde’s subtle lighting, Jeanne Barnes Reith’s costumes, and Jon Lorenz’s excellent sounds.
And Gilmour Smyth never once calls attention to herself as an actor doing the role. She never intrudes — a little push here, an extra fillip there — to nudge things along. As amazing: try giving her a Technique Check — break away from the moment and see how she’s doing it. You can’t. As long as she’s onstage, Gilmour Smyth is Vivian Bearing.
Wit, by Margaret Edson
Lamb’s Players Theatre, 1142 Orange Avenue, Coronado
Directed by Robert Smyth; cast: Deborah Gilmour Smyth, Jim Chovick, Sylvia M’Lafi Thompson, Cynthia Gerber, Jason Heil, Catie Grady, Bryan Barbarin, Kaja Amado Dunn; scenic design, Mike Buckley; costumes, Jeanne Barnes Reith; lighting, Nate Parde; sound, Jon Lorenz
Playing through November 17; Tuesday through Thursday at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Matinee Saturday at 4:00 p.m. and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. lambsplayers.org