Topic of cancer
Wit is one of those rags-to-riches, fairytale success stories. Rookie playwright Margaret Edson (then working in a bicycle shop) wrote her first draft in 1991. The first production was in Southern California in 1995; the play went to New York three years later, and won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1999.
This writer has been waiting, waiting, waiting for a local production ever since. There’s even a well-regarded actress (Julia Brothers) working regularly in the area who fits the requirements of the leading role to a T (in fact, she’s done the part in San Jose).
But the subject matter—a 50-year-old literature professor dying from advanced ovarian cancer and puking her brains out during chemotherapy—was deemed a bit too dark by more than one local artistic director. (We’re not giving anything away in terms of plot—the central character announces in her first scene that she dies at the end.) The script also requires a minimum cast of nine; most shows by local equity companies feature a cast of four or five.
So it’s fallen to the UC Davis Department of Theatre and Dance to give local audiences a go at this very notable script. And what results is a good news/bad news situation.
The good news includes the show’s technical values, which are comparable or superior to what you’ll find at the Sacramento Theatre Company or the B Street Theatre. That includes John Iacovelli’s scenic design, which makes effective use of imagery flashed on three projection screens and deploys moveable office chairs and hospital hardware. Also, Scott Sullens’ lighting design cleverly differentiates the action on the thrust stage.
The undergraduate cast also does pretty well, within the boundaries of its age. Which is to say that the ailing literature professor and her main doctor are supposed to be in their 50s, but they’re played here by actors who look to be in their 20s. Another actress plays a woman who’s supposed to be 80. If you can excuse this obvious contrast—and given the lack of a competing production, this writer will—they turn in reasonably good work.
Kelly Vent (who has appeared in shows at Sac City College and American River College) plays literature professor Vivian Bearing, who is as tough as nails in class, but short on friends in private life. The character draws on the metaphysical verse of 17th-century poet John Donne (her academic specialty) in coming to terms with her advancing disease. Vent illustrates this successfully, though her delivery of lines is sometimes a little deliberate.
Michael Ortiz plays senior oncologist Harvey Kelekian with a combination of caring and detached distance—as a cancer doc who sees his patients die, he can’t afford to get too close. Brian Rodda plays young oncologist Jason Posner, who once took Bearing’s class on Donne and now finds himself treating his professor as a research subject. Sarah Levine appears effectively as the nurse who is the most humane individual in the play.
Director Amy Avina embellishes the script with several choreographed sequences involving college students, cheerleaders and medical professionals, shifting the action from grim bedside scenes into fantasized numbers. (The old British TV drama The Singing Detective used the same device.) This gives Avina a chance to show off her chops, and makes for some visual surprises, though I’m not sure it ultimately brings out anything additional in the script.
Alas, this interesting production of Wit has a very short run. UC Davis needs to learn to leave these shows up a little longer so more people can see them. The final performance is on the Thursday this paper comes out.