Margaret Edson's darkly comic cancer drama Wit has been an excellent showcase for such top-caliber actresses as Cynthia Nixon on stage and Emma Thompson in the HBO film version. In a new production directed by Carnessa Ottelin at Justice Theater Project, Rasool Jahan continues this tradition with her portrayal of terminal academic Vivian Bearing.
Bearing, an accomplished John Donne specialist, is stricken with stage 4 metastasized ovarian cancer, which she informs us at the play's opening will leave her dead by the time the curtain falls. "The Faerie Queen this is not," she quips, as her sharp tongue and self-awareness provides dry commentary on the absurdity of her undignified, dehumanized existence in the cancer ward.
Bearing's last name proves ironic as she loses her own bearings in the barrage of cancer treatments. She lapses into memories while reciting her old academic analysis of Donne's Holy Sonnets, particularly the one most appropriate to her situation: "Death, be not proud." The academic detachment with which she's led her life gets a sort of karmic retribution in the way the doctors view her as more of a collection of symptoms than a human being, including one (company vet Byron Jennings) who's a former student of hers and as arrogantly disdainful about patients as she once was about her pupils.
Jahan hits the right notes as the humbled-but-not-out Bearing; she conveys the sense that the character's arrogance is earned from a lifetime of hard work and study. It's painful to see Bearing's loss of control over her own body even as she brilliantly analyzes Donne's poetry. The supporting cast is solid, particularly Jennings and, as a sympathetic nurse, Page Purgar. But this is Jahan's show, and she makes the most of the opportunity.
Upcoming stagings include a panel discussion on Feb.15, and a Cancer Resource Fair on the show's final weekend, as part of the Justice Theater Project's focus on health care awareness in its 2013–14 season.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Rotten in denmark...."