Hidden across the dark landscape of suffering are some of life's greatest lessons. And so it is in Margaret Edson's stunning, Pulitzer Prize-winning morality play Wit, which makes its Houston debut in a gorgeous production at the Alley Theatre.
Edson's central character, professor Vivian Bearing (Megan Cole), begins her journey as a highly respected scholar of the 17th-century poet John Donne. With mind-splitting clarity she analyzes the great writer's sonnets comma by comma, colon by colon, explicating the metaphysics of such lines as "Death be not proud" and drumming her dim-witted undergraduates into the ground with their own foolishness. "No one is quite as good as I," she intones with scholarly command.
Intelligent, deeply ironic and full of utterly wicked wit, she is also a woman at war with advanced stage-four ovarian cancer. Over the course of the play, she makes her way through eight vicious rounds of intensive chemotherapy, becoming well educated in yet one more discipline: She becomes, as she says, "proficient at suffering." And it is from this suffering that the queenly, unyielding and very scary professor comes to understand the guts of one of Donne's most compelling lines of poetry, a line that is repeated throughout the play: "And death shall be no more, Death thou shalt die."
Indeed, Edson's wondrous play about cancer, knowledge and the artifice of the academy becomes ultimately a play about facing death -- and the fear and loneliness that accompany it. Bearing's intelligence, wit and even loveliness of language fail her as she grapples with her illness. Getting sicker day by day, she discovers that she wants most what she has denied herself and her students all along: kindness and tenderness. Fearful and in terrible physical pain, she aches for redemption and understanding, which come ironically in the sweet and simple offerings of a gentle nurse and a maternal former teacher.
This is a huge and powerful story. And with Martin Benson's muscular, graceful direction and Cole's enormous intelligence and even bigger heart (both director and actress originated the world premiere at South Coast Repertory in 1995), the play takes off and flies at the Alley, filling up the space with the kind of exquisite and deeply felt heartbreak that comes along too rarely in art.
The characters fairly glide across set designer Scott Weldin's open stage, on which the professor's past is revealed in perfectly chosen fragments. An armchair becomes her childhood living room, a desk her favorite professor's office. And the hospital room she now occupies is sketched in with only the bare essentials, a pale blue metal bed, a side table, a manila-colored blanket.
At first, Cole strides across the vast nakedness of the stage with the commanding presence of a lion. Her voice growls with irony when she looks out to the audience and deadpans, "I don't want to give away the plot, but I think I die in the end." But as the professor's disease progresses, the majestic Cole softens. Then something eerie, almost otherworldly, spreads across this astonishing actress's face as she penetrates the depths of the professor's spiritual and physical agony. Bearing jokes and sneers and howls and weeps with an increasing urgency that becomes almost mythic in fierceness, even as it remains finely cinematic in its breathtaking intimacy. The play's most unforgettable moments come as Cole turns her face to the light, and it fills up with rage and fear. The image is singular and unbelievably beautiful.
The rest of the cast provides strong support, especially Jean Burch as E.M. Ashford, the lovingly remembered professor from Bearing's schoolgirl days. But this is, without a doubt, Cole's show. And that's as it should be. For the play examines one woman's efforts to face her life and her death, a majestic though lonely journey.
Wit runs through February 12 at the Alley Theatre, 615 Texas Avenue, (713)228-8421. $35-$49.
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