ST. PETERSBURG — Just about everyone can relate to Wit. Because of an experience with cancer, or a stay in the hospital, or just trying to negotiate the health care system, most people will find the dire predicament of Vivian Bearing, Ph.D. in Margaret Edson's Pulitzer Prize-winning play all too familiar.
As for the play's other preoccupation — Vivian's study of John Donne's Holy Sonnets — it may at first seem arcane and daunting. But in the end, this 50-year-old classics professor with stage-four metastatic ovarian cancer renders 17th century metaphysical poetry utterly relevant in a searing indictment of the invasion and abuse of the body that modern medicine can be, tempered by her profound, and often very funny, investigation into the meaning of life, death and God.
Kim Crow, who enters with a red ball cap on her bald head, grasping an IV pole, barefoot and wearing a hospital gown, is Vivian in the American Stage production, which is being performed at the Palladium Theater. Crow is playing the role for the fourth time over the past decade or so, and her Vivian is not the formidable monster of the intellect that Edson's script will certainly support. Instead, she is girlishly vulnerable and eager to please, delivering droll zingers like a Borscht Belt comedian.
"I just hold still and look cancerous," Vivian says of her demeanor during Friday morning Grand Rounds, when she is examined by a crowd of doctors and interns.
The Palladium stage, bigger than American Stage's own space, has allowed director Todd Olson to bring an epic quality to Vivian's story. The imposing set by Scott Cooper (who also designed the costumes, mostly white lab coats and hospital scrubs) is dominated by what looks like a giant shower curtain. The effects for X-rays and other procedures inflicted on Vivian are chillingly convincing.
The pivot of Wit turns on the relationship between Vivian and Jason Posner, M.D. (the suitably intense Bill Grennan), a brusque, unfeeling researcher who took her class as an undergraduate. Her ardent explication of Donne's "If poysonous mineralls" sonnet is matched by his awe-struck revery on the mysteries of cancer. That they're both alike, solitary and obsessed with their work — "The young doctor, like the senior scholar, prefers research to humanity," Vivian says — is a bit too neat and tidy, but it does make for great melodrama.
The American Stage production enjoys luxury casting in its supporting players, including Joe Parra as Kelekian, the doctor in charge of Vivian's treatment; Barbara Redmond as E.M. Ashford, Vivian's mentor, who follows her reading of a children's bunny story with the play's most luminous line: "And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest" (it's from Hamlet, a wonderfully witty touch given Ashford's earlier putdown of Shakespeare); and LuLu Picart as a kind-hearted nurse.
Wit represents a significant collaboration between American Stage and St. Petersburg College, which owns the Palladium and whose downtown campus houses the theater company. Cooper is, along with his design work, head of the school's theater department, and a number of SPC theater students are in the 14-member cast, playing hospital techs, Vivian's students and so forth. Having them involved is not only good theater education, but it also helps to give the play an impressive sense of scale that a smaller cast (it is often done with nine actors) would not be able to achieve.
At Thursday night's preview, the show featured an odd, tin-eared prelude in Olson's pre-recorded curtain speech in which the standard recitation of housekeeping matters to the audience was jarringly juxtaposed with snatches of syrupy music. I guess it was deliberately meant to be annoying — commentary on the alienating hospital environment? — and in that it succeeded.
John Fleming can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8716.