Can battling cancer be warm, inspiring and humorous? It can in Margaret Edson’s Pulitzer Prize winning play, “Wit,” which is also frightening, informative and thought-provoking.
N.C. Theatre’s production offers a fine ensemble and an impressive creative team. But dominating the proceedings is Kate Goehring’s riveting performance as university professor Vivian Bearing, whose diagnosis of stage 4 ovarian cancer jolts her into re-evaluating her life.
Goehring deserves special praise because she was called in just days before the opening, replacing the lead whose sudden departure was, as reported, for personal reasons. Goehring had played the part last year at Greensboro’s Triad Stage, but jumping in at such short notice was still risky.
At the fifth performance Sunday night, Goehring was in full control of Bearing, the 50-year-old specialist in John Donne’s metaphysical poetry who comes to greater understanding of his musings about death. Bearing’s rigorous demands for perfection have led to an isolated existence with little empathy for others. This comes back to haunt her as she finds the same attitudes in her attending doctors, interested more in what they can learn from her than in helping her.
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Goehring projects Bearing’s agonies with vivid reality, from teeth-chattering chills and back-arching pain to questioning her sanity and reverting to childlike behavior as the end nears. But Goehring also relieves the tension with expertly timed sarcasm, rounding out a complicated character whose ordeal offers lessons for everyone.
Tony winner Daisy Eagan’s down-to-earth nurse Monahan is extremely sympathetic in attempting to comfort Bearing and tell her the truth about her chances. Dirk Lumbard portrays both Dr. Kelekian and Bearing’s father. As Kelekian, he is suitably focused on the teaching aspects, but his brief scene as Bearing’s father is one of the show’s most endearing moments and demonstrates what a professional can do with a few lines. Logan James Hall as Dr. Posner embodies the avid researcher who doesn’t see the human toll his work takes, while Jo Ann Cunningham’s professor Ashford, Bearing’s former teacher, is lovingly strict in a flashback and kindly nurturing with Bearing at the end.
Director Kate Galvin keeps the action moving crisply against Chris Bernier’s striking hospital hallway, although having Bearing’s bed against the sidewall makes for several awkwardly staged scenes. On Sunday, the last 20 minutes slowed to a crawl, losing necessary momentum. But it was a small price to pay for such a gripping and engaging evening.
What: “Wit,” presented by N.C. Theatre
Where: Fletcher Opera Theater, Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts, 2 East South St., Raleigh
When: 7:30 p.m. May 3-8; 2 p.m. May 7-8
Note: The show is about 90 minutes long without intermission.
Info: 919-831-6941 or nctheatre.com