Moving On 

Heartrending production continues Tennessee Rep's successful turnaround

Heartrending production continues Tennessee Rep's successful turnaround

WIT

Performed through Oct. 7 by Tennessee Repertory Theatre in Polk Theater, TPAC,

505 Deaderick St.

For tickets, call 255-ARTS.

The Tennessee Repertory Theatre has now embarked on its second full season under the leadership of executive producing director David Grapes. Grapes arrived in January 1999 to take over an organization that was in some disarray both artistically and fiscally. He apparently has steered the ship through some murky economic waters, and, with the assistance of associate artistic director Todd Olson, he oversaw a 1999-2000 season that was generally a critical success, highlighted by solid productions of An Ideal Husband and Cyrano de Bergerac.

The Rep’s 2000-2001 season offers a fairly ambitious mix of classical, musical, and modern works, including five Nashville premieres. The main stage lineup at the Polk Theater includes Romeo and Juliet, Camelot, The Little Foxes, and 1998 Tony Award winner Art by Yasmina Reza. Of even more interest to the theatrically sophisticated will be The Rep’s new Off-Broadway Series, with scheduled productions of NPR cult hero David Sedaris’ Santaland Diaries, Martin McDonagh’s Beauty Queen of Leenane, and Paula Vogel’s How I Learned to Drive. (These latter productions will have limited runs and will be presented in TPAC’s Johnson Theater.)

The Rep’s increased activity should be considered a very good thing for Nashville. Cities of our size ought to support well a major resident theater company, and as Nashville grows in its artistic consciousness, there’s no reason why its citizens can’t look to Tennessee Rep the way the people of Louisville look to Louisville Repertory Company or the way Washington, D.C., residents view Arena Stage. Consistent management and quality product are the keys to such venerable status, of course; but how exciting it might be if The Rep eventually finds a way to incorporate high-caliber, original drama into its season. That thought is for the future, however. The good news today is that The Rep is off to a great start this fall with its production of Margaret Edson’s Wit.

The story behind this play is almost as intriguing as the story within it. The playwright is a kindergarten teacher in Atlanta and is completely dedicated to that calling. But before she discovered teaching, Edson spent time as a clerk in a cancer research hospital. This experience provided the inspiration for Wit, and the first words were committed to paper in 1991. Five years and nearly a thousand submissions later, Wit was first presented at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa, Calif. It eventually found its way into New York City and in 1999 was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for drama. Since then, Wit has been performed all over the country and in London, and despite its rather ominous setting and melancholy overplot, it emerges truly as a triumph of the human spirit.

The play centers on Vivian Bearing, a middle-aged college English professor whose specialty is the poetry of John Donne. Unmarried, childless, isolated in her academic ivory tower, Bearing has just learned that she is suffering from an advanced case of ovarian cancer. Suddenly, this austere, demanding professional must endure the confusion and humiliations that beset any mere mortal faced with illness: Rather impersonal doctors speak in arcane words, hospital personnel come and go on their annoyingly appointed rounds, and the cancer ward soon becomes the last earthly habitat she will know.

As the audience watches Bearing stripped of both her clothes and her dignity, she lets us into her life. In between the IV drips, the catheters, and the stirrups of that most personal of physical examinations, Bearing reminisces about childhood and the demands of achieving scholarly prominence. She also indulges in what amounts to one last lecture on 17th-century metaphysical poetry, with focus on Donne’s eternal—and oh-so-appropriate—“Death Be Not Proud,” the words of which provide the thematic underpinning for what is a decidedly moving evening of theater.

Wit is presented in 90 minutes without intermission, a decision made long ago in author Edson’s rewrite process. Given the play’s subject matter, there were concerns that an audience presented with the opportunity to leave their seats would do just that—and never return. We’ll never know otherwise, then, and perhaps it’s just as well. For if Wit is nothing else, it is fully a theatrical experience, and the feelings one is left with—teary-eyed though they may be—have much more to do with the importance of humanness and life’s chances for spiritual connection than they do with cancer and death.

Tandy Cronyn—an actress of noble bearing herself—takes the stage in the lead role and never takes a break, offering a tour de force of grace, skill, and most of all, courage. Like the character she plays, Cronyn is stalwart and resolute in portraying what happens when a life built on rigid control must surrender to forces beyond it, when vulnerability is not simply a passing stage but a condition to be embraced to the—not-so-bitter but rather mystical and transcendent—very end.

Cronyn is well supported by eight other cast members. Cecil Jones and Matt Chiorini, respectively, play the senior and younger cancer doctors, whose recognition of Bearing as an intellectual creature is too soberly superseded by their regard for her as a research specimen. Barbara Redmond’s performance as Bearing’s colleague and mentor comes in two installments, some 30 years apart, and provides not only a wondrous physical transformation in her character but also a touching move from academic taskmaster to loving mother figure. Julie Rowe is the evening’s angel of mercy, the registered nurse who tends to Bearing’s critical needs naturally—unthinkingly, yet with compassion—and hence provides ironic counterpoint to the otherwise sterile, scientific ambience. Heather Corwin, Todd Denning, Stephanie Vickers, and Thomas C. Williams II are the capable role players who complete the company.

Todd Olson’s direction is notable primarily for its smooth choreography of the daily hospital routine, a deft handling of the scene that confronts the difficult issue of do-not-resuscitate directives, and the chill-inducing final tableau, which takes simple movements and a gorgeous lighting effect by designer Kevin McDermott to create what is certainly a most heavenly moment in contemporary theater.

Cogent yet heartrending, Wit is simply superb. And with that, The Rep has set a very high standard for the rest of its much-anticipated season.

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