For Kim Crow, having a bald head is a small price to pay for being able to play Vivian Bearing, Ph.D. "I'll look like a squirrel for about four months, but shoot, I love this play," said Crow, whose husband shaved her head for her performance as a 50-year-old classics professor with ovarian cancer in Wit, the acclaimed play by Margaret Edson. It begins previews Sunday in a production by American Stage at the Palladium Theater.
Vivian, a specialist in the poetry of John Donne, is one of the great roles for a female actor, and this is the fourth production in which Crow has played her. In another production she played Vivian's mentor, E.M. Ashford.
"The only thing that I've played that was as difficult, if not more, was Golda's Balcony," Crow said of the one-woman show about Golda Meir, the prime minister of Israel. "Golda was as warm as Vivian is cool."
Crow played Vivian for the first time in 2001 at Florida Rep in Fort Myers. "My first production was very fierce," she said. "It's nice to play her 10 years older. This time is almost totally different. The earlier productions kind of condition you that shaving your head is nothing, that the last scene of the play is not so terrifying. The saving grace is that Vivian is so funny."
The first time she played Vivian, Crow immersed herself in Donne's poetry. His Holy Sonnets on life, death and God are central to Edson's play.
"I read everything," the actor said. "The thing that struck me that I could use was that Donne was called the poet of air, which helped me kind of shape how the thought forms would go. I don't read him for pleasure or anything, because that would tie my brain into knots. His early stuff, the love poems, are more interesting for me now than the religious ones."
Today, Crow most appreciates the play for its immediate connection with the audience. "Everyone has an experience, either directly or indirectly, with cancer," she said during a lunch break from rehearsal last week. "What I really love about Wit is how it has changed the way we practice medicine. There's a more supportive, caring approach taken now. Now the play is part of the curriculum for med students."
Crow has her own experiences with cancer. "I lost my aunt to lung cancer," she said. "My husband is a renal cell survivor. Kidney cancer. It'll be five years (this week)."
When Crow's husband, Drew Strouble, a visual artist, was diagnosed, she had already played Vivian. "Maggie's script tells the truth, I know," she said. "We were sitting there and he had stage 4 renal cancer, and we looked at each other and both said at the same time, 'It's just like Wit!' And bust out laughing. You just have to laugh."
Edson has not written another play that has been produced since Wit, which won the 1999 Pulitzer Prize after its off Broadway production with Kathleen Chalfant as Vivian. It was made into an Emmy-winning movie, directed by Mike Nichols and starring Emma Thompson. A Broadway revival this year had Cynthia Nixon in the role. The playwright seems quite happy teaching middle school students in Atlanta.
"There was just something I wanted to say," Edson said in a New York Times story by Charles McGrath, "and the play seemed like the best way to say it. But the contribution I want to make now I want to make in the classroom. The difference between teaching and play-writing is not incomprehensible to me; they're not so different. They both create a public event that leads to understanding."
Crow and Strouble — known as CatmanDrew, painter of cat portraits — live in Sarasota. At their house on Siesta Key, which they share with three cats, she has a home recording studio where she does voiceovers. It's a career that started in 1979, when she was the original Bitchin' Betty, the voice used for cockpit warnings to pilots and astronauts.
Her resume now includes work for companies such as IBM, AT&T, Siemens and Bank of Montreal. The money she has made as the voice for commercials, instructional videos, phone messages, museum tours and many other things has "been a total gift from God," she said. "It has allowed me to continue to do stage work."
John Fleming can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8716.