Review: Johnson gives epic performance in "Wit"

Posted Online: Aug. 20, 2010, 12:00 am
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By Jonathan Turner,
More than 1,500 Americans die of cancer every day, and most of us have known someone who has battled this dreadful disease.

The outstandingCurtainbox Theatre Company production of Margaret Edson's smart, literate "Wit" tells the story of one woman's struggle. Through it, she (and, by extension, the audience) learns the value of human kindness and the need for simple emotional connection.

Vivian Bearing, Ph.D., a renowned professor of 17th-century poetrywho has spent years studying and teaching the difficult Holy Sonnets of the metaphysical poet John Donne, has been diagnosed with terminal ovarian cancer. Her approach to her illness is like her approach to the study of Donne: exhaustively probing and intensely rational.

Ms. Bearing's nursesays she imagined a poetry scholar would be more "dreamy," but the unsentimental Vivian is anything but: cold, tough, and deeply analytical.She knows all about life and death in her study of Donne, who explores mortality and God. She is demanding, uncompromising, never one to turn from a challenge. When told she has cancer, Vivian remains very calm. She will fight this head-on.

Corinne Johnson, St. Ambrose University professor and chair of the theater department, gives an epic, transcendent, tour-de-force performance as Vivian. She is on stage for the entire length of the one-act, hour-and-45-minute play. (She alsoplayed the same role in 2003 for New Ground Theatre.)

Ms. Johnson is mesmerizing. With her head shaved for the role, she clearly and persuasively walks us through each painful step in Vivian's life story, including flashbacks. Supremely confident, with an outsize ego, Vivian speaks directly to the audience and reveals her love of language.

"Wit" -- which premiered in1995 and won a Pulitzer Prize in 1999 -- insightfullydraws parallels between Donne's work and Vivian's personality. Vivian displays jaw-dropping intelligence but has not formed emotional bonds with anyone. She is50, single, with parents who are no longer alive, and she has no friends or family to visit her in the hospital.

Her counterpart on staff is the hard-charging Dr. Jason Posner (Eddie Staver III), who also loves research. He is lacking in bedside manner and sees interpersonal relationships as a waste of time. He compliments Vivian on her Donne course, which he took in college, admiring how tough it was.

Even with its serious subject, there is a generous amount of wry,biting humor in the script -- e.g., as she's about to undergo a pelvic exam by Jason, Vivian says, "I wish I would have given him an A." After throwingup several times, Vivian notes that if she literally barfed her brains out, it would be a great loss to her discipline.

During the course of her illness, as a prize patient in an experimental chemotherapy program at a major teaching hospital, Vivian comes to reassess her life. In addition to the trauma and pain caused by eight rounds of chemo, she suffers "ceaseless indignation" at the hands of the staff.

Ms. Johnson creates raw, harrowing, difficult-to-watch scenes as Vivian shakes uncontrollably with chills and later cries out,writhing in unimaginable pain. Her rage at a doctor asking if she's in pain is searing and shattering.

We learn thatchemotherapy also eradicates her immune system, so every living thing becomes a health hazard to her. Vivianappreciates the paradox that her treatment imperils her health.

In his poetry,Donne doesn't resolve the big issues he raises, but revels in their complexities. In a flashback, a student asks why he makes it so complicated and says he's hiding, maybe scared, as Vivian is now. Donne is hiding behind his wit.

As Ms. Johnson looks back at that time and thinks about it silently, her expression of regret is heartbreaking. Vivian, who matches the monumental intellect of her subject, comes to understand the value of simplicity. She sees how her scholarly style denied her students the human kindness she now seeks.

Ms. Johnson is phenomenal In her fearless, soul-baring performance and takes us on a roller-coaster of emotions. Scenes in which she reaches out to Mr. Staver's character and to Jessica Sheridan as her nurse, Susie, and a late appearance by Vivian's old professor (Dee Canfield) are especially touching and poignant.

Director Phil McKinley elicits uniformly strong performances from the nine-member cast, four of whom play multiple roles. The production is all the more powerful with thetremendously sensitive use of lighting and soft mood music. Adam Parboosingh, an assistant professor of theatre arts at Augustana College, did the evocative lighting design, and Aaron Randolph III (who co-starred in the Curtainbox's production of "Art") composed the wistful piano score.

If you go

-- What:Curtainbox Theatre Company's "Wit."

-- When: Through Aug. 29; Thursday through Sunday and Tuesday. 7:30 p.m. except Sundays, 3 p.m.

-- Where: Village Theatre, 2113 E. 11th St., Davenport.

-- Tickets: $20; seniors $15, students $12. (563) 322-8504; Tonight,tickets are $35, with half the proceeds going to benefit the Clarissa C. Cook Hospice House, Bettendorf, through the Genesis Foundation. There will be a pre-show reception.


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