NORTHBRIDGE — Margaret Edson’s Pulitzer-Prize winning “WIT,” like its unforgettable central character, Dr. Vivian Bearing (Ellen Elsasser), is in love with language. It’s a grand, exquisitely paradoxical play that Matthew J. Carr’s Pilgrim Soul Productions unveiled on Friday night with clear-eyed focus, fastidious intelligence and devastating emotion. Elsasser held the Singh Performance Center audience rapt with the performance of her career, portraying a distinguished academic, specializing in 17th-century poetry, particularly the Holy Sonnets of John Donne. Vivian is being treated for stage IV ovarian cancer, and her doctor, Harvey Kelekian (a nicely authoritative Mark Patrick) subjects her to a grueling, experimental bout of chemotherapy over eight months that, while shrinking her tumor, ravages the rest of her body.
Frequently addressing the audience with intellectual detachment, she’s both an observer and participant in her ordeal, telling us right off the bat “I think I die in the end,” and “They’ve given me less than two hours,” which is the approximate running time of this no-intermission play. As she says, with scholarly disapproval, “irony will be deployed.” And Elsasser deploys it with the precision of a surgeon, but it’s a cerebral rigor that will eventually, shatteringly become undone, as pain overwhelms her late in the play, in a sequence that Elsasser imparts with pellucid, heartbreaking intensity. Up to that point, Vivian doesn’t ask us for empathy, the very idea of which is distasteful to her. The topic of “research verses humanity” is one that defines her relationship with Dr. Jason Posner (Sean Gardell), a former student of hers that used her class to hone his analytical skills, at the expense of any semblance of a bedside manner.
It’s remarkable to see how deeply Elsasser has committed herself to this role. Wearing a skullcap to emulate the baldness resulting from the chemotherapy, and a baseball cap to hide it, she is a frail carapace of skin and bones determined to keep her mind aflame with scholarly acuity. Words for her are pearls that she latches onto with admiration. During the dire prognosis that Dr. Kelekian reveals to her, she repeats, with the approval of a connoisseur indulging a fine wine, “insidious” and “pernicious.”
What separates “Wit” so emphatically from a disease-of-the-week melodrama, is that it never dares to wallow in cheap sentimentality, which makes painfully moving Vivian’s growing awareness that neither the cold, clinical scientific scrutiny surrounding her nor her prodigious intellect can spare her from her mortal coil. Edson’s feat here is to make irony oddly touching. Vivian has devoted her life to teaching metaphysical poetry, and contemplating mortality from a detached, intellectual point of view. In one of several flashbacks, Vivian recounts a discussion during her student days with her academic mentor, Dr. E.M. Ashford (Grace Leslie in fine, fervent form), who takes issue with an inferior edition of Donne’s “Death be not Proud,” where semicolons and exclamation points overly dramatize the division between life and death. The beauty of a simple comma will do.
The scenes between Elsasser and Gardell amusingly illuminate how much, paradoxically, Vivian and Jason have in common. She’s a passionate scholar. He’s a passionate researcher. And Vivian notes, with curious fascination, that she has become the object of his obsessive research. He marvels that she’s the only patient who has survived all eight doses of the experimental chemotherapy. It would be easy to hate Jason, if it weren’t for the fact that Gardell’s deftly neurotic enactment of him makes one realize that an emotional connection to Vivian would derail his medical focus. Reduced to the label of a lab rat, Vivian realizes that she could use a little human touch, which is given by Susie Monahan (Lexi Meunier giving a warmly understated performance), the nurse who shares a popsicle with Vivian and provides her with her resuscitation options.
Even though we know little about Vivian’s personal life, other than the fact she’s 50, never been married, and her parents long deceased, Elsasser imbues her with a marvelous, intricate complexity. She’s the ivory tower academic that her students — played by Christie and Kevin Brady, Cathy Hersh and Erik Johnsen — find too demanding. She’s the droll, stoic commentator and impatient patient. In a tender interlude, she’s the 5-year-old girl being gently prompted by her father (Patrick) to sound out a word — “soporific” — in reading “Tales of Beatrix Potter.” Even as a little girl she loved words.
Carr directs with a delicate but firm hand, drawing what he needs from the supporting cast, letting the spotlight shine on the luminescent Elsasser. Alan Standrowicz’s impeccably furnished set design makes for a convincingly sterile hospital environment, made even more evocative by the revolving slideshow imagery of hospital, lab rooms and various sonnets on the back wall of the stage. It’s a compelling, memorable achievement not to be missed.
By Paul Kolas
Worcester Telegram & Gazette