Written by Margaret Edson
Directed by Sanford Robbins
Where: Thompson Theatre at the Roselle Center for the Arts
(University of Delaware, Newark, DE)
I am not one to give a standing ovation "just because." I've found that the "standing ovation" is simply de rigueur in New York City nowadays when I make the all-too-rare trip up there and it's lost its true meaning in my opinion. A standing ovation is the audience's way of praising an artist or a production for exceeding expectations and delivering a fantastic piece of theater.
Well...at 3:45pm on Sunday, April 27, I found myself standing up...and it wasn't just to get up and leave the Thompson Theatre at the Roselle Center for the Arts at the University of Delaware. I stood up to praise what I had just witnessed in the Resident Ensemble Players' production of playwright Margaret Edson's Pulitzer Prize-winning Wit, a play that tackles death (and life) head on courtesy of a riveting performance by REP member Kathleen Pirkl Tague.
Wit centers on Dr. Vivian Bearing, a university professor who specializes in the poetry of Englishman John Donne. As the play opens, Vivian reveals that she has stage IV ovarian cancer...and the prognosis isn't good. In fact, in one of the play's opening lines, Vivian tells the audience that it isn't her "intention to give away the plot, but I think I die at the end. They give me less than two hours." She agrees to an experimental high intensity eight-round chemotherapy treatment, but doesn't realize just how quickly the medical industry's attempts to help her just might wear her down.
Vivian is a tough cookie -- and an incredibly smart one at that -- and Kathleen Pirkl Tague exudes that strength in the play's initial moments. Onstage for the entire play, Tague doesn't get a moment to rest with the story squarely focused on her for the intermissionless 100 minutes. Of course, that's not a problem for Tague as she always has a tendency to steal the show whether taking on comedy (Noises Off) or drama (as a fantastic Linda Loman in Death of a Salesman), but this may be the first time I've seen her take center stage and Wit further showcases her talent.
Playwright Edson's script crafts Vivian as a no-nonsense professor -- one of those who you seemingly can't please despite how much you try -- who, in addition to being a bit of a hard-ass, is also prone to dry humor. Perhaps she needs that sarcastically witty side in order to cope with the fact that she's given her life over to her studies of John Donne so much so that as she lays dying in a hospital room, she has no one to visit her. This delicate balance of character traits creates an incredibly well-rounded character with whom we come to really feel a connection thanks to Ms. Tague's ability to hit all the nuances of Edson's script.
Not only is the play funnier than I thought it would be (the humor derived from rather smart "wordplay" was a treat for this English degree recipient), there's a great amount of heart on display as well in large part thanks to the lovely relationship we witness between Vivian and her nurse Susie portrayed by Jasmine Bracey, graduate of the University of Delaware's 2011 PTTP student training program. (Side Note: UD -- Let's give that program a budget again and bring it back!!!) While her doctors (REP members Lee Ernst and Michael Gotch) see Vivian as a research subject, Susie treats Vivian as a person and the connection these two achieve is touching. Kudos to Ms. Bracey for holding her own with Ms. Tague's Vivian considering that her nurse is a much less-developed character.
Although Wit is a bit less "showy" in terms of sets, the scenic design by Stefanie Hansen embodies the perfect hospital atmosphere and director Sanford Robbins rather adeptly creates an ease and flow between scene changes, tonal shifts, and fourth wall-breaking (Vivian talks directly to the audience often) that never once feels jarring.
However, Wit isn't a play for visual theatrics. Instead, the showiness comes from the brave leading performance of Kathleen Pirkl Tague. Although I appreciate all members of the REP troupe, for some reason or another, Ms. Tague has always been my favorite because of her (aforementioned) ability to so easily tackle both comedy and drama. Her role in Wit allows her to showcase both aspects of her talent.
The standing ovation I gave as Wit concluded was well-deserved. I can't recommend this one enough -- check it out before it takes its final bow on May 10.