Friday, February 19, 2016

"Wit": a review and reflection

Years ago, perhaps before this blog ever came into existence, I went with my brother David to the Kennedy Center in DC to see Margaret Edson's Pulitzer-winning play W;t (pronounced "Wit"), which starred Judith Light (lead actress in the TV series "Who's the Boss?") as the play's protagonist, Dr. Vivian Bearing, a stern English professor who specializes in the poetry of John Donne (of "Death Be Not Proud" fame). I had read the play before I saw it, and I cried during my reading of it. Edson had a good ear—not only for words and their power, but also for the rhythm and resonances of the human spirit.

Dr. Vivian Bearing has led an ascetic existence as an essentially friendless university professor, frightening class after class of poetry students with her keen intellect and uncompromising manner. Now, though, as the play begins, she discovers she has stage-four metastatic ovarian cancer. "There is no stage five," she wryly observes. The play covers her final months on this earth—a woman whose stock in trade has been Donne's meditations on death and salvation, now facing the very real prospect of her own mortality. Judith Light's portrayal of Bearing was wrenching, and I cried openly and shamelessly, giving her a standing ovation along with the rest of the crowd that was there that night.

Some years after the Kennedy Center production, HBO did its own TV-movie version of the play, titling it "Wit" without the witty semicolon. The film was directed by Mike Nichols ("The Graduate" and "Regarding Henry," to name one success and one misfire). It starred Emma Thompson, who co-wrote the screenplay along with Nichols himself. Not much was changed in the textual transference from stage to screen, but the nature of the acting certainly changed because of the intimacy that was possible with in-your-face camera work. I didn't see the HBO production until just tonight, and to be honest, I'm not sure why I wanted to put myself through that experience.

Tonight's viewing (the entire film is currently available on YouTube; watch it before it gets yanked by the copyright trolls) was the first time I had come back to Edson's play since my mother's death. If the play had broken my heart before we knew anything about Mom's illness, imagine what watching it was like after having been through that experience. According to the Wikipedia trivia, film critic Roger Ebert went through the same inner trial: he had seen the film before his own cancer, and when he tried to watch it again after he had been stricken with cancer, he found he was unable to do it. For myself, tonight, there were moments when I wanted to turn away—to delete this particular tab on my browser, cutting off the video before we arrived at the bitter end. But I watched the whole movie, and I cried, and I admired Emma Thompson's magnificent performance.

At the same time, I begrudged the character of Vivian Bearing her ability to narrate the steps of her own demise: that dignity was denied my mother at the very beginning, when a portion of her brain had to be cut away as part of the initial debulking procedure to get rid of most of her tumor's mass. With her frontal lobe mostly gone, Mom couldn't form logical chains of sentence-shaped thoughts, and I never had a good grasp of how deeply she could feel emotion, especially as the tumor regrew and spread from one lobe of her brain to the other. For a couple months, Mom could talk, but only in short, simple sentences. She mostly spoke reactively; whatever verbal initiative she'd possessed had been stripped away, along with her forebrain. So yeah, I resented Vivian Bearing's articulateness, her sharp wit. Mom had only bloody tatters of her mind left. How was that fair?

The play is mostly set in a hospital. Vivian Bearing spends much of her on-screen time in a bed. The relentless sameness of the movie's setting caused 2009 to come flooding back to me. It wasn't a pleasant feeling. There were times when I wanted to reach into the screen and stroke Emma Thompson's cheek, to share a bit of human warmth with the dying English professor. Vivian Bearing notes, with both ironic tenderness and resigned bitterness, that she had denied her own students any sign of human warmth and compassion, and now here she was, alone in a bleak hospital with a bevy of coldly analytical medical professionals, only one truly compassionate nurse, and no other visitors.

Earlier in this reflection, I noted that Emma Thompson and Mike Nichols had changed little from Edson's original work. They did, however, change the play's final moments. Edson's ending had Vivian Bearing walking "naked and eager" into a mysterious light. Thompson and Nichols's version is more mundane. No heavenly light greets Dr. Bearing in the TV production; instead, we get a voiceover and a final glimpse of the deceased Dr. Bearing's face. I'm not sure how I feel about this change. In one sense, it deprives us of the chance to experience something spiritually uplifting. On the other hand, the new ending, albeit prosaic, is more grounded in reality, and the viewer is left to ponder unassisted the meaning of Donne's "Death, thou shalt die."

At least my mother didn't die alone. She was with the small circle of her immediate family at the Walter Reed Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland. I might begrudge Vivian Bearing the retention of her mental faculties until almost the very end, but I pity the professor for dying alone, respected but unloved. May such a fate never await the readers of this humble blog. And may you never experience—or witness—this sort of suffering.



John (I'm not a robot) said...

Powerful stuff, Kevin. I'll definitely try and catch the movie.

One quibble, I rather enjoyed "Regarding Henry".

Bratfink said...

Oy, you've broken my heart yet again.

I'm going to YouTube to watch it. My sinuses could use a good cry. xoxox

Bratfink said...

OMG I'm 35 minutes in. This is PAINFUL.

Kevin Kim said...


For what it's worth, I kinda' liked "Regarding Henry," too, but it'll never be remembered as one of Mike Nichols's greatest hits.


By now, you've probably had a thorough flushing of your tear ducts and sinuses. Very sad movie, but also a necessary meditation on death and dying, I think.

Bratfink said...

It was BRUTAL.