Fortyfivedownstairs presents Margaret Edison’s Wit, a heartfelt, and amusing insight into John Donne’s deathly sonnets, therapy, and palliative care.
The Artisan Collective executes an immaculate performance of the 1999 Pulitzer Prize winning drama. Director Ben Pfeiffer’s vision is impeccable.
Jane Montgomery Griffiths is a moving and soulful Vivienne Bearing, Professor of English Literature, and self-proclaimed scholar. Her years of study and lecturing on the Holy Sonnets of John Donne inspire her to survive ovarian cancer. The Professor succumbs to experimental chemotherapy treatments at a New York teaching hospital.
The statuesque slim and bald Vivienne stands naked beneath her white gown, in a stark hospital room. She poses a nonchalant question, ‘How are you?’ and discusses how a person is supposed to feel about terminal illness?’ She tries to deconstruct and compare her treatment to Donne’s, Holy Sonnet X, or known as Death Be Not Proud. A marvelous segue between the audience and the scholar begins.
Pfeiffer’s unwavering concept is evident in the flashback scenes. Vivienne recalls her childhood, education, and career as if she were creating a John Donne sonnet. This proves to be a welcome distraction from her painful ordeal.
We learn of her love of the written word from the age of five. She reads The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies by Beatrix Potter, to her wheelchair bound father (Rhys Mc Connochie). Helen Morse is fabulous as her intolerable Professor Ashford. As she awaits the trial treatments, her mentor ridicules her about her incorrect use of a semicolon in a paper on Donne’s Sonnet X.
Vivienne is consulted in a monotone voice by her oncologist Dr Kelekian, also played superbly by Mc Connochie. He introduces his fellow Jason Posner (Mick Lo Monaco), who is remarkable as a student doctor consumed with his research under the pretence of helping human beings. This exacerbates Vivienne’s situation, as Posner is quick to remind her, he took her literature course.
The production is incredibly authentic, the seamless scene changes are the only reminder we are watching a performance. Vivienne tolerates Posner’s discreet yet excruciating internal examination. She grips the bedclothes with white knuckled fists and her face contorts. Montgomery Griffiths gives a convincing enactment of the degradation and alleviates the intrusion with pertinent sarcastic lines.
Post Posner’s poor ‘bed-side-manner’ she suggests to scores of laughter that maybe she should have given her former student, a better mark on his final paper.
Wit is a direct and deliberate approach about cancer treatments and the isolation in oncology wards. Vivienne endures all eight rounds of the trial treatments. Her nurse Susie Monohan (Jing-Juan) is her only companion. Chan gives an outstanding and realistic performance. After a reaction from a particularly violent round of treatment, Susie offers a very dehydrated Vivienne an icy-pole. They share an honest moment and discuss the consequences of resuscitation if Vivienne were to suffer heart failure.
Dean Cartmell and Zoe Ellerton-Ashley lend their superb voices in the acapella arrangement. They are effective in their portrayal as Vivienne’s former students in a comical and clearly announced flash back.
The minimalist set adequately represents the spartan lifestyle in hospitals. The execution of sound and lighting to punctuate the environment was flawless. The low hum of mediation music is a peaceful and comforting farewell.
Jane Montgomery Griffiths’ pivotal performance does this exceptional story justice.
Pfeiffer’s philosophy compliments Edson’s writing and celebrates life, death, and mortality.