When the bell tolls for the professor

By Robert W. Bethune, guest critic

The most subtle kind of drama portrays a conflict not between people, but within one person. The battles we fight within ourselves leave few traces in the world, and so are difficult to show concretely. Margaret Edson's achievement in her play, "Wit," is quite remarkable in that it is precisely the interior struggle of her lead character, Vivian Bearing, which is the essential element of the play.

Indeed, it is almost the only element of the play. Edson's efforts to develop other characters are cursory, almost perfunctory. In fact, the very nature of her protagonist precludes relationships with others that transcend the impersonal. The play relies completely on exploration of the soul of Professor Bearing, a famous scholar of the poetry of John Donne and a victim of metastatic cancer.

Harsh to her students and herself, unbending, unloved and unlovable, savagely devoted to Donne's poetry, Bearing is the ultimate specialist, devoting her entire career to approximately 168 lines of literary text. She gives her life to poetry that speaks profoundly of death, yet when death takes up residence in her own body, she cannot even begin to understand death that is real, nor does she have such knowledge of herself as to understand how death speaks to her. Donne's lines, "any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind," are ironically both the focus of her life and completely inapplicable to it.

Since that is the nature of the play, it is inevitable that the entire burden of the performance rests upon the narrow shoulders of Diane Hill. She captures the cutting brilliance and fierce will of Bearing to the last detail, accurate to the slightest footnote or punctuation mark. One of the saddest moments in the play, beautifully understated, comes when we see that even as she faces death, there is no one - no relative, no colleague, no student, no friend - who will come to visit her. In every sound of her voice and movement of her body, Hill shows us a woman trapped in her own brilliant mind, not only cut off from the rest of humanity, but from her own humanity. Gradually, as the drugs weaken her and the cancer conquers her, her mind gives out, and only then does she give way to feeling. It is almost as hard for her to release her emotions when death takes her as it is for her to retch from her empty stomach when the nausea takes her.

Courtney Burkett's direction and the six supporting players deliver as well. Dylan McDonald shows us unpretentious honesty as a medical researcher as divorced from medical humanity as Bearing is cut off from literary humanity. The banality of his disconnection is as frightening as the ferocity of hers.

For contrast, Sarah Meyer's performance as Nurse Monahan shows us the only gentle person in the play. With truly cutting irony, she is the only one who stands up for Professor Bearing when the professor can no longer stand up for herself.

'Wit'

Breathe Art Theatre Project at the Furniture Factory, 4126 Third St., Detroit. Fri.-Sun., through March 3. Tickets: $20. For information: 313-831-1939 or http://www.breathearttheatre.com

The Bottom Line: A tough-minded play for an audience worthy of it's steel.

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