Well Donne

ATC's 'Wit' explores the last days of a scholar of sonnets.

"Death be not proud," John Donne admonished the Grim Reaper in one of his Holy Sonnets. Yet it's Donne scholar Vivian Bearing who should mark the poet's words as she approaches death. With an arrogant confidence in her fearsome intellect, Vivian assumes that her mental prowess alone will allow her to master ovarian cancer, just as she has spent 30 years mastering the 17th-century metaphysical poets. But although students and colleagues have called her mighty and dreadful, in the face of death she is not so.

Margaret Edson's Pulitzer Prize-winning Wit follows Vivian through eight months of an experimental, ultimately futile cancer treatment, and along the way it draws more laughs than probably any other play offered this season by Arizona Theatre Company. Vivian confronts her treatment, which is more debilitating than the cancer itself, with a brilliant sense of irony and paradox honed by her long entanglement in Donne's complex metaphors.

Edson's play throbs with mind games and conceits worthy of Donne himself. Vivian, aware that she is a character cast in a play that will extinguish her at the final curtain, constantly addresses the audience as if she were lecturing a college class. At first she maintains a scholarly distance from her subjects--herself, her ordeal--but as she proceeds to explicate the text of her situation, she gradually realizes that her usual intellectual tools will not help her answer the questions she now faces.

Donne and his fellow metaphysical poets employed unexpected, even inappropriate metaphors to tease at unanswerable questions about life, love, faith and death. Similarly, nearly every scene in Wit can be taken as a metaphor for Vivian's situation. (Edson pokes fun at her own preoccupations by having one character evaluate a simple children's book as "a little allegory of the soul.")

The scene key to this is a flashback. Vivian remembers herself as a 22-year-old grad student being reprimanded for a "melodramatic" analysis of Donne's 10th Holy Sonnet, using a corrupt edition with faulty punctuation. The intimidating Professor E.M. Ashford intones, "The sonnet begins with a valiant struggle with death, calling on all forces of intellect and drama to vanquish the enemy. But it is ultimately about overcoming the seemingly insuperable barriers separating life, death, and eternal life."

She quotes the sonnet's last line, inserting a central comma where an inauthentic semicolon had intruded: "And death shall be no more, Death thou shalt die."

"Nothing but a breath--a comma--separates life from life everlasting," Ashford explains. "With the original punctuation restored, death is no longer something to act out on a stage, with exclamation points. It's a comma, a pause. ... Life, death. Soul, God. Past, present. Not insuperable barriers, not semicolons, just a comma."

Inspired by Ashford's intellectual rigor, Vivian adopts this uncompromising approach not only to literature but to life for the next 28 years. At age 50, that's all she has--that, a wicked sense of humor and a tumor the size of a grapefruit.

Ironically, Vivian herself becomes the object of scholarly study. She falls into the care of a clinical researcher and his callow clinical fellow, neither of whom is comfortable interacting with actual patients, just as Vivian's own contacts with students and colleagues have always been determinedly impersonal.

Now, as the debilitating treatment runs its course, Vivian's intellectual skills no longer serve her. A spurious semicolon has lost its defiant power to separate life from death. Vivian may as well lose her wits; only something much simpler can help her.

In ATC's production, Karen Grassle (Ma on Little House on the Prairie) is an imposing Vivian Bearing. The only color on stage is the red baseball cap covering her bald head, a symbol of Vivian's fiery mind, yet Grassle is a flinty presence all her own, striking sparks with every ironic line.

Roberto Guajardo and Jason Kuykendall play the doctors not as bad guys, but as self-absorbed scholars whose Research One priorities have left them ill-equipped to deal with patients. Jean Burch's Professor Ashford, though seen only briefly, is both imposing and humane, a more complicated figure than Vivian realizes. And Lizzy Davis brings welcome warmth to her portrayal of a young nurse who is Vivian's only caring human connection. Near the end, one simple but breathtaking bit of mute contact between Davis and Grassle is almost worth every word crammed into the 90-minute play; it's a moment that owes its power to Samantha K. Wyer's transparent direction, which emphasizes emotional truth over fussy physicality.

And that's something, ironically, that Vivian sought to pull from her poets all her life.

Arizona Theatre Company presents Wit Wednesdays through Sundays at various times through February 3. Performances are at the Temple of Music and Art, 330 S. Scott Ave. Admission costs $22-$35, with half-price adult rush tickets available to each performance one hour before curtain. For information or reservations, call 622-2823.