At the beginning of the powerful, unsettling production of W;t, running at Playhouse on Park in West Hartford through May 8th, the lead character announces she will die of cancer at the show’s conclusion. This is not a spoiler, since the pronouncement comes within the first few minutes of the play and provides the audience with advance notice of what is in store. What transpires is a somewhat bleak, occasionally humorous, clinical examination of a highly educated woman fighting a losing battle against Stage IV ovarian cancer.
Playwright Margaret Edson’s work, which won the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for drama, introduces the audience to Dr. Vivian Bearing, a college professor and scholar of 17th century poet John Donne. She is gaunt, dressed in a hospital smock and backwards turned baseball cap. She is an intellectual with exacting standards who is in control of her classroom and life. Unfortunately, her battle with cancer intervenes, upending the dispassionate academic career she so enjoys. As she undergoes treatment her dignity is stripped away by the disease, standoffish doctors and technicians. We are left with a woman who eventually welcomes death, a central theme in the work of Donne, which she dissects, like a class lecture, throughout the show.
Ms. Edson accurately portrays an individual, not only suffering from the debilitating effects of cancer, but someone who is frightened, in pain, and alone. W;t can be uncomfortable for people that have/had a loved one go through chemotherapy and eventually pass away from the illness. But the play also shows a person’s inner strength, fight, and resolve and, finally, their dignity in dying.
Elizabeth Lande as Dr. Bearing gives a strong and compelling performance that truly anchors the production. Physically, she looks the part of a woman dying from cancer. She is inquisitive, combative, and vulnerable. David Gautschy in the small role of Dr. Kelekian and Tim Hackney as Dr. Jason Posner, doctors and researchers, come across as a bit too calculated and unfeeling towards their patient. Hackney, especially, could have added more nuance to his portrayal of the young, hotshot fellow treating the fading academician. Chuja Seo as Nurse Susie Monahan comes across as the most realistic character. Her caring demeanor, protective quality, and humor ring true for anyone that has been hospitalized for cancer.
Director Stevie Zimmerman keeps the focus on the Dr. Bearing character. She is the heart and soul of the play. Her feelings, thoughts, and rollercoaster behaviors are exposed for all to see. Zimmerman adeptly shifts the action through scenes of harried hospital personnel, classroom flashbacks, to an almost solitary abandonment. The finale of the production, raw and unflinching, is skillfully and poignantly handled by the director.
Scenic Designer Emily Nichols’ set of simple opening and closing panels is highly effective in portraying a sterile, unadorned hospital room. Marcus Abbott’s Lighting Design satisfyingly highlights and underscores important moments during the play.
W;t, an absorbing, gripping drama through May 8th at Playhouse on Park in West Hartford.