The opening night performance of St. John’s Players’ production of “Wit” made the perfect ending to International Women’s Day 2018.
Written by a woman, directed by a woman, produced by a woman, starring a woman, and stage managed by a woman, the feeling of female empowerment permeated the Barbara Barrett Theatre, named after a woman.
American playwright Margaret Edson penned the intense and emotional piece in 1995, and “Wit” remains relevant today, as cancer continues to affect people across the globe.
When we first meet our protagonist, 17th-century poetry professor Vivian Bearing, PhD, she appears to be your typical tidy elderly woman. She carefully begins removing her gloves, continuing to remove clothing until she is left in just a hospital gown, her thick hair lost to her disease: Stage 4 metastatic ovarian cancer.
“How are you feeling today?” This is a question we will hear many times throughout the show, and it’s a question that Vivian absolutely hates.
Breaking the fourth wall, she directly addresses her audience, breaking down the details of the story we’re about to see.
“I don’t mean to give away the plot, but I think I die at the end,” she said.
This use of humour, or wit, as the show is titled, helps drive the plot forward, connect the audience to the character, and keep the sobbing to a strict minimum.
Vivian’s wit is inspired by metaphysical poet John Donne, whom she studied in-depth from a young age. Her fascination with this writer, and his penchant for writing about the mysteries of life and death, heavily influenced not only her life’s work, but also her attitude towards her cancer.
Picking apart the doctor’s word choice while she is being diagnosed, she barely pays attention to the grim prognosis, and the intense course of treatment she will endure for the next few months. Vivian has to be tough — “It’s a matter of life or death.”
She recants her career highlights as she undergoes chemotherapy, and as time passes, the once fierce and fearless woman seems to shrink into herself, the harsh drugs wreaking havoc on her body, and in doing so, slowly destroying her mental health, though she clings to normalcy with a tight grip.
Eight rounds of cancer treatment make a “highly educational experience,” Vivian said. “I am learning to suffer.”
The audience suffers alongside Vivian, meeting countless doctors, and nurses in the present, and former students and profs of her past. Her struggle is our struggle, this connection built by direct addressing of the audience, openly and honestly.
Though the show sounds extremely dark and grim, given the subject matter, “Wit” was surprisingly humorous, with laughter far outweighing the very few sniffles heard within the crowd.
The acting was absolutely phenomenal, with lead Fiona Anderson stealing the show with her portrayal of Vivian. From her diagnosis, through her treatments, to her intensely realistic pain and suffering, all leading to her death, Anderson takes the audience on a wild rollercoaster ride of highs and lows, a ride that lasted long after the well-deserved standing ovation was over.