Cancer is a difficult topic for any author to handle. It's personal, and horrifying, and has touched nearly every person in some way. Margaret Edson was unafraid to write about her experiences working in a hospital to create her heartbreaking, award-winning play “Wit”, in which a college professor must go through the horrifying of experience of being treated for cancer. Austin gets our own chance to experience this play thanks to Andy Berkovsky and the crew at City Theatre, and they present a noble and emotional production with an astonishing leading performance by veteran actress Judith Laird.
There's almost a paradox in the character of cancer patient Dr. Vivian Bearing, a combination of intellectualism and sentiment that would be hard for an actress to tackle. Its therefore no mean feat that Judith Laird is able to become the character with such ease, handling this intense balancing act with aplomb. Laird is quick witted and sly, able to turn the highly complicated texts she's given into glorious, naturalistic dialog, which never feels feigned or overdone. Even at the character's most grandiloquent, Laird always is able to inject a sense of respect and sensitivity, never truly showing herself to be cold or overbearing. The true talent of Laird shows its face in the later stages of the play, as we see the intellectualism of the character begin to fade into a childish sentimentality. Some of the most heartbreaking moments come from watching the descent of this high class genius into a gibbering child, and as she writhes on the bed in pain in her final moments, every eye in the audience is sure to well with tears. Its not easy, or comfortable, to play a dying woman, especially one dying of cancer, but Laird leaves her shame, fear, and discomfort at the door to give us a performance that is raw, honest, and heartfelt.
Though we spend most of our time with Vivian herself, we must mention the fine being done by her supporting cast. Though many of the acts simply waltz their way on to stage, take their few lines, then glide off, but young Vanessa Marie is able to make the most of her limited stay as nurse Susie Monahan. Her soft, soothing voice belies a gentleness that is difficult to find in the play, and as the play continues, she becomes the closest thing to family to be found for Vivian, and she brings every ounce of softness and caring she has to create a quite endearing performance. Two veterans also give some of their finest work here, despite spending very little time on stage. The few moments we spend with Craig Kanne is enough to remind us how underused he is in the city as a whole, creating a respectable and subdued performance despite only appearing for about 10 minutes. Kristin Bennett spends even less time on stage than Kanne as Vivian's mentor Dr. E.M. Ashford, but she becomes a vessel for one of the play's most emotional moments, as she reveals the cracks hiding in Vivian's stone heart.
Wit is not an easy play to watch. It is the story of a woman going through something that no one would wish on their worst enemy, and is sure to leave you in tears during many segments, but it's also a truly moving experience, featuring one of the best acting jobs this year. City Theatre has one again created a memorable drama that is sure to leave audiences shaken to the core, thinking of the events long after play's end.
This article is part of the special Better Late than Labor event, where reviews that didn't quite make it to the site finally get the chance to see the light of day. Enjoy, and stay tuned for more reviews later today.