Presented by one of  Melbourne’s premier independent theatre companies, The Artisan Collective, Pulitzer Prize winning drama, Wit (also known as W;t) is set to open at fortyfivedownstairs later this month. A work by American playwright, Margaret Edson, it chronicles the life and death of Dr Vivian Bearing, a university professor of English, dying of ovarian cancer.

It is interesting then that actor Jane Montgomery Griffiths, (herself an Assistant Professor) is playing the role of Vivian, which she describes as having more than just a little bit of a doppelgänger vibe about it.

“It’s been fascinating approaching Vivian, because I could have been her in a parallel universe,” says Montgomery Griffiths. “We are both academics (when I am not acting, I am a professor at Monash Uni), we are both scholars and demanding teachers, we have both found a passionate connection to the world of literature – but then we get the differences. Vivian has subsumed her desire for human connection to the world of the mind. As she says, she “prefers research to humanity” – and that is very much not me! But I wouldn’t mourn for Vivian – her choices were right for her, as they are for many dedicated academics. I admire her resolve, her courage, and her wit (she is very acerbically funny) – I’m just glad there are more differences between us than similarities!”

Wit is all at once highly intellectual, humorous and devastating. Edson examines many themes in her work  including: loss, compassion, self examination/realization, mortality, sacrifice, mind vs. body and love.

“As Vivian says, “Life, death, God” – but also one’s sense of identity, one’s connection to others, and the ‘insuperable barrier between one thing and another’ being ‘just a comma’,” says Montgomery Griffiths in reference to the recurring theme of the use of a semicolon versus a comma in one of John Donne’s Holy Sonnets.

For Montgomery Griffiths it is an extraordinary play: witty, profound, and incredibly cleverly structured.

“On a basic dramaturgical level, it’s a joy to be in a play that’s just so well written – Edson gets every rhythm and every nuance right. And her sense of Vivian’s characterisation is superb.”

“On a deeper level, though, it is profoundly beautiful – about compassion, resilience, and the dance of the intellect and the emotion.  It’s heartbreaking but it’s also joyful.”

“I remember seeing the film with Emma Thompson years ago and being utterly devastated, but also oddly inspired by it. So when Ben Pfeiffer asked me to play Vivian, I jumped at the chance. Of course, it’s terrifying! It’s a huge part and probably the most demanding thing I’ve ever done. But it is a privilege to tackle something that is so beautiful.  And then, of course, there’s John Donne’s poetry woven through the story, and I’ve always been a sucker for him!”

As an actor, Montgomery Griffiths is luxuriating in the richness of Edson’s language as well as the beautifully rendered character of Vivian. Tackling a role like this is not without its challenges, however, says Montgomery Griffiths:

“Vivian’s fastidious love of language is exquisite to explore and play with. I love her vocabulary and her passion for words.  It is demanding, though. Physically it takes a toll: weight loss, shaved head, and the sheer psychosomatic exhaustion of playing someone in so much physical suffering. But I’m an actor who likes challenges, so I wouldn’t have it any other way. ”

Wit is a beautiful composition of the cerebral and visceral – is widely circulated as compulsory viewing for medical students and is utilised as a training video on patient/doctor relationships, and how to manage the terminally ill.

For Montgomery Griffiths it’s one of the most brilliant plays she’s been involved in. It has a stellar cast including theatrical icons Helen Morse and Rhys McConnochie, and its director, Ben Pfeiffer, is quite wonderful. Finally, it might seem that it’s a play about the inevitability of death, but it’s actually a soul-enhancing celebration of the acceptance of life.

August 31 – September 17