Pictured: (l-r) Lisa Tejero and Adithi Chandrashekar. Photo by Joe Mazza.
Review: WIT at The Hypocrites
By Erin Shea Brady
Margaret Edson’s 1999 Pulitzer Prize Winner WIT is a bold play, known in theater circles for requiring tremendous bravery from its lead actor. It must first be said, before digging any deeper into the Hypocrites production, that Lisa Tejero delivers. As Dr. Vivian Bearing, a scholar of the poet John Donne who is diagnosed with Stage 4 metastatic ovarian cancer, Tejero runs the emotional gamut with wit, as the title implies. It’s a remarkably vulnerable performance, and I feel fortunate to have seen it.
This is a difficult play to produce right now. In our current political climate, I’ve found myself looking for plays that offer catharsis and commentary on the issues we’re all grappling with. When I heard that WIT would be featured in The Hypocrites season, I was especially excited to see what their take would be, as I’ve come to expect their work to be loud, daring and invigorating. WIT is subtle, and though many of the themes are timeless, the play itself is dated. This intimate staging did a lot to make the play feel present, but I missed a sense of urgency and a stronger connection to where we are in the world in 2017.
The direction, by Marti Lyons, has heart. I can see how the process might have been intense and emotional for this cast and production team, especially given the loss in the Chicago Theater Community over the past few years. Death touches all of us. More often than not, so does cancer. There was no shortage of commitment from this production and each moment felt honest and costly. We are meant to be contemplative during, and after, this play —– to look around and, knowing we only have so much time, ask ourselves if we’re doing all the good we can and if we’re happy. Edson’s play speaks to the simplicity of that question, “How are you feeling today?” True, when asked of a woman who is dying, it’s reductive. But we are urged to turn that question inward, to assess.
I also appreciated the lack of judgment about how Vivian chose to spend her life. In the hands of some, this play is a cautionary tale about not getting so consumed in work that relationships fall by the wayside. Don’t get me wrong, this is an element that Edson explores, but us theater people can relate to Vivian’s love of art, of language, of poetry, and a great need to explore the human condition, which analysis of John Donne’s work satisfies. It isn’t a wasted life, though Vivian learns that to experience death, in reality, has little to do with punctuation. In favor of this more complex portrayal, however, we lose some of her tension and regret, which raises the stakes in necessary relationships between Vivian and members of the hospital staff.
As Vivian’s primary nurse, Susie, Adithi Chandrashekar is really wonderful to watch. Her timing is on point, her delivery refreshingly honest, and she is able to balance out Vivian’s poetic monologues with something more grounded. There’s a way in which Susie makes it okay for Vivian to experience death as a human, not a scholar, and that is extremely important.
What was missing in the direction of this piece was a clear and focused arc. I wasn’t sure what the production was trying to say. While elements of the relationship between Susie and Vivian helped me find my way through, I missed the onset. This is a high-intensity piece that takes us in a lot of different directions, and I wasn’t able to sift out which moments I was meant to pay the most attention to, which moments would help bring this story home. As a result, the climax was confused and the piece lost some of its impact. While I was deeply engaged in elements of the story throughout, I wasn’t sure what to walk away with.
That being said, I hope you’ll support this excellent company and go see this play. They deserve an audience. The work is poignant, heartfelt and genuine, the production value is high, and, it bears repeating, Lisa Tejero is truly exceptional as Vivian. Perhaps the responsibility lies with me to remember that not all plays need to be urgent. Sometimes, great, enduring plays just serve to remind us to be present and kind.
WIT runs through February 19th. For more information visit the-hypocrites.com/