Charlene Baldridge | Downtown Theater Critic
A gregarious man in the Coronado restaurant October 11 nattered at the woman at the next table, a stranger. “We’re here to see a play,” he said, indicating the large group of which he was a part. “It’s opening next door. It’s called ‘Wit’. That’s all I know about it.”
The gregarious man was in for a surprise – a rare theatrical experience – something as profound, mysterious and important as death, life, faith, friendship, family, achievement and the meaning of it all. Those are the kinds of plays produced by Lamb’s Players Theatre during their 40-plus years of existence, along with some lighter fare. Margaret Edson’s “Wit,” which received the 1999 Pulitzer Prize, will rock you to your core. It could change your life.
Vivian Bearing (Deborah Gilmour Smyth) is a 50-year-old scholar and teacher who has devoted her entire specific and ordered life to words, the explication of words and their punctuation, especially as they pertain to 17th century metaphysical poet John Donne (1572-1631).
Much to her surprise, Vivian has inoperable, advanced stage metastatic uterine cancer. She enrolls in a clinical trial and endures eight grueling months of chemotherapy. An only child, Vivian has no family and no friends she cares be notified, thank you very much. How does such a woman, accustomed to living in her head, experience such an event? Courageously, and the only way she knows how, by explicating it. That may seem clinical; the cumulative experience of the 90-minute work is not. It is a journey that we all take and many have witnessed.
One of San Diego’s finest actors, Deborah Smyth, is directed by her husband, Lamb’s Producing Artistic Director Robert Smyth, and surrounded by an extraordinary ensemble comprising Lamb’s associate artists and company members.
Jim Chovick portrays oncologist Harvey Kelekian, M.D. and, in one of the play’s most luminous scenes, Vivian’s father, who listens as his child discovers poetry for the first time, reading him Beatrix Potter’s “The Tale of the Floppy Bunny.” Associate Artist Cynthia Gerber portrays Vivian’s nurse, Susie Monahan, and Sylvia M’Lafi Thompson plays Vivian’s early mentor and tormentor, E.M. Ashford. Jason Heil has moments of well-timed comic ineptness and bewilderment as Dr. Jason Posner. His gauche pelvic exam is one of the highlights of this magnificent work. Yes, Edson’s play is funny, too; hence, its title “Wit,” which is one of Donne’s overriding characteristics.
These moments of comic relief are so needed and expertly applied by director Smyth without skewing the rhythm and tone – surely a miraculous feat of magic.
Bryan Barbarin, Kaja Amado Dunn, and Catie Grady play additional hospital staff. Scenic designer Mike Buckley’s hospital world consists of miles and miles of easily moved sheer curtains, a few props, and projections, the latter two contributed by Michael McKeon. Jeanne Barnes Reith is costume designer, Nate Parde, the lighting designer, and Jon Lorenz, the sound designer and composer.
Lovers of language and excellence are urged to see the awesome Deborah Smyth in Lamb’s Players’ luminous production of Edson’s only play. The playwright (b. 1961) lives and teaches middle school in Atlanta.
“Wit” continues at 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 4 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, and 2 p.m. Sundays through November 17 at Lamb’s Players Theatre, 1142 Orange Ave., Coronado. Tickets are $22 – $52 through lambsplayers.org or 619-437-6000.
Charlene Baldridge moved to San Diego from the Chicago area in 1962. She’s been writing about the arts since 1979, and has had her features, critiques, surveys and interviews included in various publications ever since. Her book “San Diego, Jewel of the California Coast” (Northland Publishing) is currently available in bookstores. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.