Friday, May 19, 2023

"Wit" by Hypnic Jerk Theatre at Theatre in the Round

I first saw the Pulitzer Prize winning play Wit six years ago, when I called it "simply devastating," "also funny, and smart, and philosophical, and enlightening," and "brilliantly written." Hypnic Jerk Theatre, a newish #TCTheater company in their first post-pan show, is currently presenting a new production at Theatre in the Round, and it's excellent. Joy Donley gives a strong, funny, and heart-breaking performance in "one of the juiciest roles in theater - a smart, educated, independent, confident woman who experiences life in a whole new way while approaching death from cancer." But this isn't a one-woman show, and the ensemble gives great support. The staging and design in the in-the-round space are effective in telling the story of this woman's journey, in a thoroughly compelling and moving 100 minutes of theater. This is another short run show with only six performances, so act quickly to see this fine execution of a new classic (click here for info and tickets).

The hero and narrator of our story is Dr. Vivian Bearing, a professor who is an expert in the metaphysical poetry of John Donne. She's spent her life contemplating life, death, and the afterlife in theory, and has to rethink everything she believes when faced with the stark reality of it. The play opens with Vivan speaking directly to the audience and explaining the situation to us - that this is a play about her life, or rather death. Scenes of her treatment (eight months of experimental chemotherapy at full dose) play out interspersed with flashbacks to her childhood, studies, and teaching career. Dr. Bearing occasionally breaks out of the scene to comment to us, the audience, about what's going on or what she's really feeling.* She's so logical and clinical about everything for so long, acting and reacting as a scholar, that when her human emotions finally come through, it's all the more affecting.

Hypnic Jerk founder Kari Steinbach directs the piece and makes good use of the in-the-round space, with characters and medical equipment moving in and out from all directions. The play demands a tricky tone, in which the audience feels comfortable laughing about cancer and death, while not making light of it, and this production nails it. As mentioned, Joy Donley is a wonderful Vivian, never leaving the stage, and speaking directly to the audience, making us feel like her confidants. She alternately expresses Vivian's analytical and emotional sides, as well as a few believable flashbacks to her youth. Meri Golden gives a brief but memorable performance as Vivian's mentor and friend, Dominic DeLong-Rodgers is frustratingly spot-on as the fellow who cares more about science than people (with perhaps a glimmer of a change), and Gillian Constable is so warm and nurturing as Susie, truly epitomizing the caring nurses that make our health system work (as much or little as it does).

Joy Donley as Dr. Vivian Bearing (photo courtesy of Hypnic Jerk)

The set is appropriately sparse and clinical, with wheelchairs, hospital beds, and IV stands wheeled in and out when needed. The lighting helps to differentiate the flashbacks, and changes from warm lighting when Vivian is telling a story, to the harsh lighting of a hospital. Scrubs, hospital gowns, and suits complete the simple but effective costume design. (Set and costume design by Robert L. Graff, lighting and sound design by Shannon Elliot.)