Written by Margaret Edson
Directed by Anne-Marie Szucs
Playing at The Walterdale Theatre from December 2nd-12th
Death be not proud, though some have called thee/ Mighty and dreadful, for, thou art not so/…One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally,/
And death shall be no more, death, thou shalt die. -from Holy Sonnet X, John Donne
Upon opening the program for The Walterdale’s production of W;t, my emotional defences were instantly levelled long before the lights went down and a be-smocked cancer patient walked out on stage. In Anne-Marie Szucs directors notes, she bravely shares her intimate personal connection to the play; her notes were written at the bedside of her husband “in his last days of battling brain cancer. The sun is shining on us, and he is sleeping peacefully. Simple. Love”.
It’s safe to state with confidence that we have all known someone who has been diagnosed with a cancer, so many of us might ask ourselves why we would want to expose ourselves to a play that deals with such a devastating illness when it already casts such an enduring shadow over our daily lives?
The shining courage of Szuc and her cast inspires us to forsake these hesitations to join their journey through this Pulitzer Prize winning play. Their resolve shows us the true purpose behind why we write, perform and participate in theatre that explores such emotionally demanding material. Each of us has a personal connection with grief and hardship and by sharing in someone else’s story, we can confront our fears and grief together, finding laughter, catharsis, redemption, healing, freedom and ultimately truth.
So I urge you to gather your courage, my friends, for this poignant play, performed with equal measures of strength and tenderness, is about a person, not about Cancer. Capital C.
Vivian Bearing is an ardent scholar and a meticulous professor of John Donne’s Holy Sonnets, a collection of 17th century metaphysical poetry that explores some of humanity’s most daunting questions about God and death, existence and its cessation. Vivian is wedded to her work, to her words and the words of her hero poet. Her students and work colleagues are her sole human relationships; she has no next of kin, no family or friends to accompany her on her journey through the gruelling treatment she is receiving for her stage 4 metastatic ovarian cancer.
We the audience become her sounding board, her ex-students, her solace. In the format of a pseudo-one-woman show, Vivian walks us through her memories and contemplations as her body slowly deteriorates from her debilitating treatment. Though acknowledging the inescapable disease and the side effects of her treatments, Vivian focuses her efforts on quantifying her life as she approaches death, a paradox she has studied rigorously in her years as a scholar of Donne.
“It has always been my custom to treat words with respect. I can recall the time – the very hour of the very day – when I knew words would be my life’s work”.
Actress Mary-Ellen Perley has a deft and exuberant command over Vivian’s challenging dialogue, which makes up the majority of this 100 minute play. The character’s mind is sharp and precise; not just any word will do. Her fastidiousness becomes particularly crucial to her emotional and mental well-being as her physical faculties deteriorate, fighting against being reduced to “just the specimen jar, just the dust jacket, just the white piece of paper that bears the little black marks”.
We live in a culture where words are not necessarily chosen with care. We naturally speak in simple terms to ensure we are understood, to make sure we “fit in”. Though this kind of plainness is no serious transgression, it does mean that many words have lost their precise meaning and we have therefore lost our connection to them and consequently ourselves. Our ability to communicate our exact intent, our complex inner feelings, has become rather stunted. So has our ability to comprehend the gravity of words like cancer.
Words and their significance are never lost on Vivian, and Perley is thorough in her efforts to make certain the audience follows her characters’ complex vernacular. She immediately draws parallels between words she is familiar with, like insidious, which she is stunned to discover has quite different literal and medical definitions. She vows to become as well versed in the medical terms assigned to her illness as she is with Donne’s metaphysical vocabulary.
Vivian has spent her life deliberating over such exactitudes as the implications of an errant semi-colon or a deliberate comma in Donne’s Holy Sonnet X, and whether or not Death deserves a capital D. Pedantic as this quandaries may sound, they are at the heart of her journey as she discovers emotional truth and deep personal connection to the consequential effects of both punctuational possibilities.
Her interpretation of the poetry morphs with these differing interpretations to fit her personal circumstances, shining light on our own unique experiences and connections as we react to the poetry on stage before us.
Szuc’s direction is effortlessly sensitive and valiantly honest, and with an understated but sturdy supporting cast, Perley looks us in the eye and boldly leads us on this voyage with spunk, stirring vulnerability, and dare I say, wit.
Our stage is in constant shift from classroom to hospital (we’re only ever let in to Vivian’s domestic life in a short n’ sweet scene with her at age 5 reading with her stern but loving father). The stark design allows us to focus on the story; a few well-chosen bits of hospital paraphernalia and the typical blue smocks and scrubs suffice. Hospitals, after all, are quite drab places. Plus, I could swear they cleaned the theatre with hospital grade cleaner- it smelled just like the ICU wing my mum worked on as a nurse.
Though some of the song choices littered through the action might be a tad trite for some, the final moments are musically delivered with delicacy and grace to match Perley’s performance.
As Vivian nears the end of her battle, she finds herself searching for her steadfast words to guide her, but none can capture or convey her thoughts now; “Now is not the time for verbal swordplay, for unlikely flights of imaginations and wildly shifting perspectives, for metaphysical conceit, for wit…Now is a time for simplicity. Now is a time for, dare I say, kindness.”
In a dreamlike sequence, an old professor of hers appears; Vivian’s first and only visitor, stopping by on her way to her great-grandsons birthday party. Her first thought is to recite a metaphysical favourite for the now near-vegetative patient, but instead takes Vivian in her arms and, rocking her gently, reads to her from a children’s story book sending her softly to sleep. Simple. Love.
The riches of this masterfully written play are not squandered on this sensitive company. Audiences are sure to leave the theatre with a deeper appreciation for their loved ones and a desire to find the perfect words to express their renewed courage in the face of all life’s trials.