It's predetermined from the opening monologue: "I think I die at the end," the protagonist in hospital gown and purple baseball cap announces. "They've given me less than two hours . then the curtain." She's got advanced metastatic ovarian cancer, she explains.
Now would you believe that this play is funny? Believe it. This is the Vortex Theatre's production of "Wit," the 1999 Pulitzer Prize-bagging script by Margaret Edson.
Beth Lavender plays Vivian Bearing - actually, that's Doctor Vivian Bearing, thank you very much, with a Ph.D. in 17th-century poetry specializing in the metaphysical sonnets of John Donne. Bearing is a perfect academic, right down to clipped, android-like nearly contraction-free English.
After a lifetime of perfect health, Dr. Bearing one day finds herself diagnosed with a very "insidious" form of terminal cancer. Naturally, this "real matter of life and death" results in much self-reflection on Bearing's part. "Wit" is devoted to the doctor's memories, framed by the outlying story of a most "pernicious" eight months of medical research in which she is guinea pig.
Again, it's funny. "Wit" lives up to its name at nearly every turn - see if you're not already laughing at the early deadpan line, "You have cancer." Bearing's irony-heavy commentary regarding behavior in hospitals is matched only by hilarious re-telling of classroom experiences.
It's also touching. Because this "scholar of distinction" must face non-academic questions that not even her God-seeking hero Donne could answer, she displays the type of vulnerability that is the hallmark of great serious drama.
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Scenes between Lavender and overly enthusiastic Dr. Posner are particularly striking. Played by recent UNM graduate Chad Brummett, Posner is a medical-world mirror image of Dr. Bearing. Despite her glacier-thick emotional front, it is clear that Bearing sees quite a bit of herself in Posner. The scenes between these two are a treat, rich in depth while their dialogue is mostly composed of - you guessed it - witty exchanges layered thick with medical jargon.
Funny medical jargon, even. Witty, if you like.
Kudos to director Marty Epstein and the Vortex team for putting together a tight show based on an outstanding work. The set design - brought to you by Vortex Board President Miguel Martinez and director Epstein - makes the most of the space's black-box design, managing with minimal distraction to help simulate a busy cancer ward.
The acting is well above average throughout the cast, with Lavendar outstanding; this is essentially a one-woman show with extras, after all. Brummett, as stated, is absolutely excellent in his role as a failing student of Bedside Manner 101.
In terms of stage time, Ray Orley and Theresa Tetley's turns as hospital staffers Dr. Harvey Kelekian and Nurse Susie Monahan follow; like the cast's remainder, these two are seamless in the parts.
And, oh boy, is that script witty. Exactly how witty is "Wit?" Witty enough to make scalpel-sharp jokes about terminal cancer while making Donne's verse palatable for the masses. If wit can indeed be explained with Bearing's definition of "a way to find out how good you really are," this production fulfills the title exquisitely.
"Wit" plays at the Vortex Theatre, 2004 ´ Central Ave. SE, until Nov. 4 on Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 6 p.m. Tickets are $10 for general admission and $8 for seniors and students with Sunday shows selling for $7 for all seats. Call 247-8600 for seat reservations and more information.