Coronado, CA---When tackling the character of Vivian Bearing, the brilliant college professor and expert in17th century metaphysical poetry, who sharpened her teeth on the Holy Sonnets of John Donne, and who also happens to be struggling with the her recent diagnosis of Stage Four Metastatic Ovarian Cancer, one would want a strong woman in the drivers seat.
Lamb’s Players Theatre under the deft direction of Robert Smyth is currently mounting an emotionally unsettling, gut wrenching, powerful and extraordinarily straightforward rendering of Margaret Edson’s 1999 Pulitzer Prize winning play for drama, “Wit” with one of San Diego’s finest, Deborah Gilmour Smyth who plays the strong willed, uncompromising, take no prisoners Vivian Bearing. Ms. Smyth never falters.
At times Ms. Smyth narrates directly to the audience, speaking frankly as she wheels out her IV pole, wearing a hospital gown, a baseball cap to cover her bald head, and with a cold look that could freeze hell over. This is Vivian Bearing.
After she pulls back the hospital room curtains separating her room from others in the facility she walks to the edge of the stage and stares down the audience. She challenges us to understand how nonsensical the standard greetings she faces every day from nurses and doctors, technicians and other hospital staff become: “Hi. How are you feeling today? Great. That’s just great”.
She is after all a woman in the final moments of her life and still sharp witted and in command of her own destiny even agreeing to experimental therapy and then telling us the effects of it. In those moments, she has all her wits about her but it strains as her illness takes its toll.
Ms. Smyth never falters, never veers toward the maudlin, (although she does spoil it for us from the get go when she looks at us and says, “The Faerie Queene this is not…It is not my intention to give away the plot; but I think I die in the end”.) and never lets up on the intensity of her role as both gravely ill cancer patient and hard-nosed professor.
In this fast paced (90 min.) production Vivian is visited daily by a staff of nurses and technicians (Kaja Amado Dunn, Cynthia Gerber and Caitie Grady) and ex student Dr. Jason Posner (an excellent Jason Heil), who in an off handed greeting introduces himself to his former professor: “Hi Professor Bearing. I’m Dr. Posner, clinical fellow in the medical oncology branch working with Dr. Kelekian (Jim Chovik). Professor, I, uh, was an undergraduate at the U. I took your course in seventeenth century poetry. His usual greeting always began with, “How are you today?”
In another world, Vivian Bearing would treat her own students in that same cold, detached and absent-minded way. She did it every day in her classrooms intimidating her students (Bryan Barbarin, Kaja Amado Dunn and Caitie Grady) as told in one of her flashbacks: “In this sonnet what is the principal poetic device? I’ll give you a hint. It has nothing to do with football. What propels this sonnet?” Did I say (tenderly) “You are nineteen years old. You are so young. You don’t know about a sonnet from a steak sandwich.” By no means. “You can come to this class prepared, or you can excuse yourself from this class, this department, and this university. Do not think for a moment that I will tolerate anything in between.”
It is at these times that it’s difficult to like this dying woman on the one hand and on the other to admire her reasoning and calculating and even questioning (in the end) her own mortality; “We’re discussing life and death, and not in the abstract, either; we’re discussing my life and my death, and my brain is dulling….now is not the time for verbal wordplay, for unlikely flights of imagination and wildly shifting perspectives, for metaphysical conceit, for wit… now is the time for simplicity, now is the time for, dare I say it, kindness”.
No easy fete, this production that has the entire cast of eight fully engaged in the process including Vivian’s one and only visitor, E.M. Ashford (Sylvia M’Lafi Thompson) her mentor whom we meet up with at the beginning of the piece, and as poetic justice would have it, in the one touching and tender scene, as the one and only visitor Vivian feels contact with, Ashford, aging now, crawls into bed with her former student and begins to read, "The Runaway Bunny".
Mike Buckley’s hospital setting is all to real with the usual curtains, bed pans, heart monitors, white coats and ever present hospital bed, accented by Nate Parde’s lighting design and Jon Lorenz’s eclectic sound and Jeanne Barnes Reith’s all to familiar hospital garb.
Brilliant writing, brilliant, unapologetic and sobering acting and an all around brilliant production, but you must be up for it.
See you at the theatre.
Dates: Through Nov. 17th
Organization: Lamb’s Players Theatre
Production Type: Drama
Where: 1142 Orange Ave., Coronado, CA
Ticket Prices: #22.00-$62.00