The cancer drama Wit returned to Costa Mesa last weekend after a nine-year roundtrip that started in 1995, when South Coast Repertory took a chance on elementary school teacher Margaret Edson's first play. After its initial success here, it was picked up by Broadway, where it wowed critics and audiences, racked up a 1999 Pulitzer Prize, and then was turned into a movie starring Emma Thompson. Now Orange Coast College's Drama Lab has brought it back to local audiences, and thanks largely to a bravura performance by Jennifer Drake, the play retains much of its stark power.
Drake plays an uptight English professor named Vivian Bearing, a specialist in John Donne who contracts ovarian cancer and undergoes a grueling chemotherapy program in a desperate effort to save her life. The setup is frankly melodramatic. Vivian, in hospital gown, speaks directly to the audience, explaining with great and distanced precision her predicament, and then moves into and out of hospital scenes (dealing with officious dunderhead doctors, throwing up—for a long time—into a pail) and memory scenes (learning to appreciate Donne's intellectual wit as a college student, reading at the foot of her cold-hearted father), and it's not long before the play's thematic arc becomes clear enough: we're to watch an icily brilliant woman learn to get in touch with her feelings in the nick of time.
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Vivian's All Head and No Heart stereotype is often annoying, but the play has two things going for it. The first is that it doesn't pull any punches about mortality. Director Lynne Mosakewicz keeps the play a relentless march toward Vivian's death—we know she's a terminal case from the beginning, and there's nowhere to go but down. The play doesn't sentimentalize, and it doesn't stoop to that Neil Simon-ish ironic jokiness that "serious" Broadway plays often reach for to prop up an audience's flagging mood.
The situation goes from bad to worse, from blackout to blackout, and by the end, this prissy prof, whose lifetime of reading poems like "Death Be Not Proud" has done almost nothing to prepare her for her own end, comes, rather remarkably, to earn our respect and sympathy.
The other thing this production brings is Jennifer Drake's performance. Though she's ably assisted (particularly by Amanda Kukuk and Ben Draper), this is her play, and it's an extraordinarily demanding role. She's in every scene (though at the end, comatose in a hospital bed), and Drake, in her early 20s, does an energetic and nuanced job embodying the 47-year-old Vivian, particularly with the professor's low-pitched mandarin voice and often complex line readings (lots of close readings of Donne poems). Made up to be gaunt and pale with the chemo, her blue eyes nonetheless blaze out, early on with a defiant intelligence that will do Vivian no good, later with a courage that feels earned all the way.
Wit at Orange Coast College's Drama Lab Studio, 2701 Fairview Rd., Costa Mesa, (888) 622-5376. Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m. Through April 25. $7-$8.