San Diego Theater Review: WIT (Lamb’s Players Theatre in Coronado)

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by Milo Shapiro on October 12, 2013

in Theater-Los Angeles,Theater-Regional

WIT DOESN’T HOLD BACK

Deborah Gilmour Smyth & Cynthia Gerber in Lamb's Players' production of WIT.Years back, Oldsmobile released a new line of sporty, sleek cars with the tagline “This is NOT your father’s Oldsmobile.”  For those who associate Lamb’s Players with lighter fare such as Godspell, Guys and Dolls and Christmas specials, the powerhouse production of Wit which opened this week proves that this is NOT your father’s Lamb’s Players. And that’s all the more reason to be seeing and talking about this amazing play.

Margaret Edson’s Pulitzer Prize winner is raw from the onset and stays that way. Dressed in hospital gowns, the no-nonsense Dr. Vivian Bearing PhD bluntly tells us in her opening monologue that she has stage 4 metastatic ovarian cancer. She also tells us that she’s not going to survive the night, making it plain that we’re here to watch the end of her life, so don’t hope for something different.

Jason Heil &Deborah Gilmour Smyth in Lamb's Players' production of WIT.The protagonist, frequently including us in asides, is generally not likeable—especially in flashbacks to her pre-cancerous years. The younger Vivian is icy in her professorial duties, cutting down any student who isn’t her intellectual equal in their interpretation of John Dunne’s 17th Century sonnets. Even beyond her cerebral snobbery, her lack of compassion is epitomized when a student asks for an extension so she can attend her grandmother’s funeral, only to be told: “Do what you will, but the paper is due when it is due.”

Deborah Gilmour Smyth, Kaja Amado Dunn, Caitie Grady & Bryan Barbarin in Lamb's Players production of WIT.The irony of the dreaded professor’s demise is that she becomes the victim of her own bedside manner, suffering the indignities of being a cog in the workings of medical research. As she fights for her life, she is as much a tool for their learning as she is a person. Lamb’s staple, the usually-lovely Deborah Gilmour Smyth is startling to see bald-headed sans makeup. Gilmour’s torment in her asides, her alternating stoniness and pleading with her caretakers, and her commitment to Vivian’s physical anguish nails the angst of the lead role. Still, Gilmour and Edson carefully keep us from ever being enamored by this harsh woman whose life yields her no visitors. We are impressed with Vivian and pity her, to be sure, but more than anything we are craving change in her.

Deborah Gilmour Smyth & Sylvia M'Lafi Thompson in Lamb's Players' production of WIT.As skillful as Gilmour is in the lead role, it is Edson’s script that is the star here. Director Robert Smyth keeps the coolness of the hospital staff in line so the harsh reality of Vivian’s situation, one that anyone could be in, digs into us and doesn’t let go. The choice to write this play without an intermission is appropriate; Vivian’s cancer doesn’t give her a break so we don’t get one either.

There are times when Vivian’s monologues do grow a bit weary, especially in tirades about poetry; but her endless stream of SAT vocabulary words are necessarily exhausting. These orations are definitive of a character capable of stating, “It has always been my custom to treat words with respect”—even if she can’t muster the same courtesy for the kindest woman in the hospital.

Deborah Gilmour Smyth, Kaja Amado Dunn, Bryan Barbarin & Caitie Grady in Lamb's Players production of WIT.An interesting side note is that Edson, who worked in medical research centers at one point in her life, donated the Pulitzer Prize money to create a foundation to teach medical students how to interact more humanely with their patients. After seeing this show, one can understand why.

Make no mistake on the title: Wit refers to cleverness and intelligence, not humor. While there are certainly funny moments, the pathos won’t have you laughing. You will leave Lamb’s fine production with a lot to discuss afterward.

photos by John Howard

Wit
Lamb’s Players Theatre in Coronado
scheduled to end on Nov 17, 2013
for tickets, call 619.437.6000 or visit http://www.lambsplayers.org/

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Debra H October 16, 2013 at 5:53 am

Deborah Gilmour Smyth’s performance in this difficult, shocking, and amazing play is mesmerizing and some of the best theater I’ve ever seen. Brava, brava!

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