24 April 2017

The soul of Wit

"Wit" by Margaret Edson (Kindle edition)

It will strike different chords with different folks. With someone who majored in Literature and whose reflexes include poetry, Margaret Edson’s Wit is a chaffing reminder that command of language is in the slightest degree command of life; and mastery of the highest form of literature does not save one from leading a corny life.

50-year-old Vivian Bearing, PhD is a professor of seventeenth-century poetry, specializing in the Holy Sonnets of John Donne. She’s ready to die. Resigned, at least, to a future contained in a ‘two-hour glass’. Enough time for her to muse about mortality in front of an obliging audience.

Professors (the better ones) are precisely that: performers. Dr Bearing makes the theater her lecture hall. The subject, we’re not sure. Stage-four metastatic ovarian cancer? Metaphysical wit? Punctuations turning worlds upside-down? Kindness, meaning? Until her very last minutes, she needs to parse everything:

I am not in isolation because I have cancer… I am in isolation because I am being treated for cancer. My treatment imperils my health.

Herein lies the paradox. John Donne would revel in it. I would revel in it, if he wrote a poem about it. My students would flounder in it, because paradox is too difficult to understand.

. . .

If they were here, if I were lecturing: How I would perplex them! I could work my students into a frenzy. Every ambiguity, every shifting awareness. I could draw so much from the poems.

I could be so powerful.

Herein lies the beauty of Wit. It invites you to revel in the ambiguity of the smallest of words, of a comma; in the mental, if moral puzzles. It asks that you be witness to an agile, uncompromising mind at work before and as it succumbs to the frailties of the body.


Twin Bill Theater stages the Pulitzer prize-winning play in cooperation with Trinity University of Asia, and Tami Monsod is Vivian Bearing in this Asian premiere. The production, directed by Steven Conde, runs until May 2 at the Mandel Hall Auditorium.

Tami Monsod (rightmost) is Vivian Bearing in Twin Bill Theater's "Wit".

Brevity is the soul of wit. Edson’s script is fired up by snappy dialogues, occasionally tempered with poetic lines (“You cannot imagine how time … can be … so still. // It hangs. It weighs. And yet there is so little of it. // It goes so slowly, and yet it is so scarce). Conde’s pacing and seamless scene-changes capture the briskness of the narrative (understand that chairs, tables, beds, drawers have to be constantly rolled in and out of the stage, as the play is like a full-on monologue that keeps dipping into the past).

Somewhere towards the end, Edson shows her hand and lays down her own lesson or two. Professor Bearing is attended by the young doctor, Jason Posner, MD (Bibo Reyes), incidentally her former student as well. Because they represent contrasting ideas (youth and midlife, art and science, teaching and studying), Bearing and Posner share some of the most stimulating scenes — a few of which marred by the former stating the obvious (eg, seeking kindness from someone you were once unkind to). It's uncharacteristic of the scholar who abhors giving away easy answers, not to mention a detour from the play’s overall tone.

The sound design further robs the audience of the chance to involve themselves in the drama. It calls attention to itself: okay, here’s a really touching part coming. As if borrowed from a soap opera, the sentimental music goes against the elegance of Wit. Besides, Monsod’s cry of pain is all it takes for you to start shedding a tear.

“I can’t imagine anybody else playing Vivian Bearing,” says Conde. He’s right. Monsod clearly is the heart and soul of this production. She nails the toughness and vulnerability of an intellectual learning to suffer, all the while bringing out the humor from this otherwise grave story. Her promising co-actors should take note. Reyes, though entertaining, still appears to be acting rather than becoming a character. Mikkie Bradshaw as Susie Monahan, RN, BSN, is effective as the sweet, rather naive nurse; though her range also seems limited to those qualities.

Staging Wit inside a school isn’t without its downsides. There’s a lot to be desired in terms of set design and lighting. Furthermore, Conde, avoiding controversy, alters the symbolic final scene, where Bearing strips naked as she moves towards the light in silence — as if no longer hiding behind wit or any form of artifice. Yet if Twin Bill’s aim is to reach more students, then it’s a decision worthy of support.

Because the students will see themselves here, and maybe it will influence them to be kinder — to others and to their future selves — even as they get caught in the sometimes beautiful, sometimes cold complexities of their chosen discipline.

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