By Margaret Edson (Repertory Theatre of St. Louis)

Oct 27, 1999 at 4:00 am
Someone in St. Louis must like the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis a good deal, because the Rep was permitted to open a production of this year's Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, Margaret Edson's Wit, before its New York run ended. One might suspect that the St. Louis production's director, Susan Gregg, won the favor in reward for her careerlong devotion, as a dramaturg and muse-of-all-work, to young playwrights and new plays.

The St. Louis Wit, which opened last weekend at the Grandel Theatre and will run through Nov. 7, is an affecting production of an affecting play. It concerns the eight-month-long dying of a 50-year-old John Donne scholar, one Vivian Bearing, Ph.D., from the diagnosis of fourth-stage metastasized cancer of the ovaries to her actual expiration and -- in the only over-the-top moment of the evening -- entrance into the realms of glory.

Professor Bearing is neither a lovable woman nor even one whose achievements necessarily earn her much respect. She has won herself a place at the top of an ivory tower, where she seems to kick away the ladders of those -- be they colleague or student -- who would join her. She is ostensibly a good (i.e., uncomplaining and cooperative) patient, but much of that seems to come from the challenge her oncologist gives her to be "tough." He has lied to her by providing a false hope that the course of treatment recommended stands any real chance of defeating the cancer, and he is more interested in the research data his vigorous, actually cruel regiment will provide than he is in her health.

We do come to feel, if not love, real pity for Vivian Bearing, so alone is she in her battle against death, so courageous in her losing struggle against what grows uncontrollably within her. We admire her when she summons the courage to admit her fear and to take the comfort that a concerned nurse offers her. We are grateful when her favorite professor, now a great-grandmother, comes to visit her -- the only visitor Vivian has throughout the play -- cuddles her and reads her a little child's book rather than the poems of John Donne. We are profoundly relieved when death ends her pain. Some of the audience may also experience fear at her long, hopeless ordeal.

Alison Edwards plays Vivian as a real actor should, with absolutely no moves to gain any sentimental sympathy for Vivian or to make her warm or more appealing. Instead, Edwards is the vessel for the playwright's words and stage directions, relying as much on Gregg's sure vision of the play as she does on her own. Edwards has not only shaved her head to play the part, at least a minor sacrifice for her art, but at the final moments of transcendence she display's well-lit full dorsal nudity -- a real sacrifice for a woman no longer a tight-bodied teenager.

As Vivian's oncologist, Harvey Kelekian, M.D., Ken Kliban captures the detachment that a physician must find necessary to order treatments only an iota less dreadful than death. His minimal, perfunctory courtesy seems outrageous, but one realizes that Vivian really does not care one way or the other. Jason Posner, M.D., the young research fellow assigned to monitor Vivian's therapy, played by Jason Fisher, is a more interesting character. His bedside manner is even more perfunctory than his mentor's, and his obsession with cancer research is as inhumane as Vivian's scholarly passion for Donne's words. He thus provides a portrait of what Vivian herself must have been like as a senior graduate student. Mari-Esther Magaloni plays Susie Monahan, R.N., B.S.N., a warm-hearted nurse who is the only one who seems to care about Vivian's comfort, fears and feelings. Vivian and the physicians seem to assume that Susie is not all that bright, but the audience knows immediately (as Vivian comes to realize eventually) that Susie, at least as Magaloni plays her, is the only person in the play who can do Vivian any good. The grace with which she does it revives one's tottering faith in the health-care establishment.

With help from Dunsi Dai's set, J. Bruce Summers' costumes, Mary Louise Geiger's lighting and Tom Mardikes' sound, Gregg gives this production of Wit a hard, keen edge. The fast pace she sets makes terrible, inevitable doings onstage bearable; her refusal to admit any sentimentality gives the play honesty and, in the end, gives Vivian Bearing a kind of nobility. The Rep's production of Wit provides its audience with what Matthew Arnold, loosely translating Virgil, calls "the sense of tears in mortal things" and the sort of experience that makes theatergoing worthwhile.