“Wit” confronts disease with scholarly logic, raw emotion

“Hi. How are you feeling today?” This is the ironic first line cancer-ridden Vivian Bearing, played by senior Alicia Frame, said in a devastatingly sarcastic and self-reflective production of Margaret Edson’s “Wit,” presented by Veg S.O.U.P. and Cothurnus. Set in a cancer ward, the Pulitzer Prize-winning play follows the English professor and John Donne scholar in her final hours, as she uses metaphysics and poetic devices to look back on her knowledge-driven life. The directors, seniors Meg Sexton and Kate Mandracchia, utilize the space effectively, covering the entire floor of the Robert Sinclair Black Box Theatre before the audience as Bearing approaches them and even addresses and interacts with the audience directly, making for an intimate experience to connect with her reflection.

Simultaneous dialogue exists, distancing the inquisitive protagonist from the cold, clinical environment that surrounds her. Bearing rambles on about specific terminology and its context and meaning as the doctors ramble on with medical analysis regarding her condition, but without giving weight to the scientific words they use. It’s a strong contrast that really gives us a sense of the gap between doctors and their patients – which later parallels Bearing’s situation with her students.

Additionally, lighting designer junior Lauren Costello supplements this partition with white, flushed lighting for scenes in which Bearing is isolated in her hospital bedroom or “listening” to doctors. Contrarily, a saturated and moodier color holds our attention on Bearing in her moments of introspection and flashback.

According to Mandracchia and Sexton, a production helmed by two co-directors makes for a much different but beneficial collaborative experience.

“[Mandracchia] and I tend to approach things in the same way,” Sexton said. She and Mandracchia are close friends and have worked together before.

“We didn’t have much conflict in terms of directing styles, maybe just in some of the blocking layouts,” Mandracchia said. “But that’s the great thing about having two of us: If certain ideas don’t work, the other can fix it.”

What makes this play is the acting.

“The biggest challenge for me was pulling off those nuances,” Frame said. “You know, it wasn’t even the really big physical moments but those mundane little things, like getting down my facial expressions and what to do with my hands and when to use the morphine drip.”

The atmosphere of a hospital is a hectic one, and so the amount of things that are pulled around the stage and picked up and set back into their proper place for later use is enormous. The actors effectively execute these “nuances,” and having those who portray the nurses double as the running crew is a convenient technique for this very kinetic setting.

In the spotlight with Bearing is hospital fellow and Bearing’s former student Jason Posner, played by freshman Kevin Raleigh.

Posner views Bearing “more as a specimen than a human being,” Raleigh said. He is a knowledge seeker, similar to Bearing when she was still teaching. He comes off as cold and indifferent, viewing her only as a sickness to study.

“He bridges the gap between him as her student and her as his subject,” Raleigh added. “He’s not a very considerate person, but toward the end he definitely has a revelation of sorts, finally seeing [her] as a person.” These two characters provide a powerful contrast and connection alike, giving them more dimensions than initially assumed.

Sexton and Mandracchia said “Wit” should resonate with all audiences, especially college students.

“It’s very accessible, just the themes and experience that [Bearing] goes through,” said Sexton. “It gives a voice to those like her and provides a lens into the real world, to hopefully inspire improvement upon ourselves and sympathy for others.”

Frame offers a different perspective for college audiences.

“The cycle of knowledge is not everything,” she said. “It can really take away from emotion. Sometimes academics just have to take the back seat, you know?”

“Wit” will run at 7:30 p.m. Thursday Feb. 13 through Saturday Feb. 15, with an additional 2:30 p.m. show on Saturday. Tickets are $5.