In Margaret Edson’s masterful 1999 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama W;t, Dr. Vivian Bearing, a formidable poetry professor specializing in John Donne’s beautiful metaphysical sonnets, faces the battle of her life: terminal ovarian cancer. As Vivian openly and insightfully addresses the pain, perplexity and torment that stems from her grave diagnosis, a fascinating, meticulously constructed journey of self-awareness and reflection comes into view. The fast-moving story, incorporating a terrific use of flashbacks and overlapping dialogue, fluidly evolves into a touching, powerfully potent portrait of dignity amid despair that particularly manages to explore the sophisticated realms of literature and procedural medicine without leaving you flummoxed.
In the Dayton Playhouse’s commendable yet low-key presentation, which could benefit from more energy in spite of the solemn tone established by director Matthew Smith, Barbara Coriell embodies Vivian’s prickly, language-driven nature with total veracity. She commands attention from her engaging, believably professorial entrance, and astutely proceeds to delicately convey, without overly emotional tendencies, Vivian’s inherent struggle that she must bear as feelings of fear and frustration consume every fiber of her being. Her well-crafted performance never falls short of compelling, whether the focus turns to Vivian’s in-depth dissection of a sonnet or the sudden realization that she has become nothing more than research fodder in the eyes of her impersonal doctors.
Charles Larkowski and Jonathan Berry, silly standouts in the Playhouse’s outstanding production of The Producers three months ago, solidly join forces again in a refreshing dramatic context. Larkowski brings a detached sensibility to his portrayal of the straightforward Dr. Harvey Kelekian. Berry, an absolute chameleon, has the larger role of Dr. Jason Posner, Vivian’s former student who is ultimately derailed by his selfishness.
Admirable featured performances are also offered by Jeri L. Williams as Susie Monahan, Vivian’s compassionate nurse, and Chris Hammond as E.M. Ashford, Vivian’s punctuation-obsessed English professor who made a profound impact on her student.
Gloria Doty, Ellen Ballerene, Marcus Simmons II and Carol Narigon complete the cast.
Unlike Showtime’s new series The Big C, W;t does not tackle cancer lightly. There are moments of levity, but the quietly engrossing material stings with a somber bluntness on the whole. Even so, the payoff is extremely rewarding as Vivian’s courageous example lingers long after the cast has taken their final bows.
W;t continues through Sunday, November 21 at the Dayton Playhouse, 1301 E. Siebenthaler Ave. Performances are Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets are $10-$15. The play is performed in two hours without intermission. For tickets or more information, call (937) 424-8477 or visit online at www.DaytonPlayhouse.org
Russell Florence, Jr. is a member of The American Theatre Critics Association and The Drama League. In addition to his role as arts and culture editor of Dayton City Paper and theater critic for Dayton City Paper and Impact Weekly, he served as a Dayton Daily News freelance writer and editorial page contributor. He has also written features for such theater publications as Spotlight Ohio and The Sondheim Review.