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The soul of Wit'

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Zachary A. Robbins & Sarah Dacey Charles (photo by Magnus Stark) Zachary A. Robbins & Sarah Dacey Charles (photo by Magnus Stark)
PTC presents Pulitzer Prize-winning drama

BANGOR There are few things as powerful as live theater.

Seeing stories unfold right in front of us is a beautiful thing. We are separate from the action onstage, yet the performers are undeniably present. That combination makes theater capable of telling tales in a way that impacts us in a way that is unlike any other art form. And even then, some pieces achieve more so much more. 

Few plays have the sort of power brought to light by Margaret Edson's 'Wit,' where one woman's battle with the ravages of cancer is laid bare on the stage. It is a brilliant piece of theater, packed with pathos and humor and sadness and truth. 

Penobscot Theatre Company has brought its own version of this Pulitzer Prize-winning drama to life on the Bangor Opera House stage. The show is running through March 31.

'Wit' tells the story of Dr. Vivian Bearing (Sarah Dacey Charles), a university professor and scholar who has been diagnosed with stage IV metastatic ovarian cancer. She is given the option of radical and experimental chemotherapy by her oncologist, Dr. Harvey Kelekian (Bernard Hope). She is warned that the eight-dose treatment will be very difficult, but that she must stay strong and take the full dosage each session.

Vivian bounces back and forth between her past and her sickness-riddled present. We see her meeting with her mentor Dr. Ashford (Alison Cox) and teaching students in her legendarily difficult classes. We also see her in the hospital, struggling to keep hold of her humanity as she is passed around to assorted nurses and interns her relationships with charge nurse Susie (Amelia Forman-Stiles) and Kelekian's research fellow Dr. Jason Posner (Zachary Robbins) are explored in particular.

Through it all, Vivian's focus never strays too far from her academic specialty the metaphysical poetry of 17th century master John Donne. She uses the intricacies of language to explore and explain her circumstances; Donne's famed 'Holy Sonnet X' in particular is revisited often. Aptly so, as it begins with the famed line 'Death be not proud.'

Vivian exists both as part of and separate from the story. We are offered multiple glimpses at her life of the mind this Vivian is virile and strong. However, the hospitalized Vivian is a woman in great pain; we bear witness as her health deteriorates, sapping the vigor from a powerful, intelligent woman.

The term 'tour de force' gets thrown around rather liberally, but there is no question that the role of Vivian Bearing deserves such a description. Bringing such a person to life requires an incredibly nuanced, multifaceted performance. Vivian is the soul of 'Wit;' a merely good performance is not enough. For this show to work, the actress portraying her must be great.

Sarah Dacey Charles is that actress.

In the capable hands of Charles, Vivian becomes heartbreakingly real. Whether we're witnessing her fond remembrances or her agonizing present, Charles never hits a false note. That sense of truth permeates her performance from beginning to end; as the tale unfolds, we ache for this person who has transcended the scripted word and become someone that we know. She is someone for whom we root and for whom we mourn. Hope, despair and the ever-present wit commingle throughout the portrayal. Simply put, it is brilliant work.

But Charles isn't in it alone. Her performance is exponentially enhanced by the work of the supporting cast. As Dr. Kelekian, Hope frustrates Vivian and the audience alike with his maddening no-nonsense attitude toward her treatment. Cox offers glimpses at both the hard shell and soft underbelly of a career academic. Robbins skillfully intertwines empathy and ambition as Jason, while Forman-Stiles serves as our proxy with her unfailing tenderness toward the ailing professor. Abby Kimball, Nathan Roach and Emma Howard complete this world's population, serving as the technicians, doctors and students that fill Vivian's life and memories.

The stark minimalism of the stage is striking. Designers Dan Bilodeau (scenic) and Shannon Zura (lighting) have combined to create a spare playing space that is both flexible and evocative. Costume designer Kevin Koski and prop designer Meredith Perry have worked magic in filling in the blanks left by the set's gorgeous emptiness, while Brian Merck has put together one of the best sound designs in recent PTC memory.

Through strong choices and strong vision, director Kappy Kilburn has mined truth from the page no easy task when approaching such a piece. There is power in pain, to be sure; power in pathos, too. But Kilburn also gives us permission to laugh a welcome respite from the darkness of the subject matter. That balance is struck to perfection.

'Wit' is a challenging piece. It's the sort of work that can be hard to watch. But the power of the theater is in its ability to make us feel and the success of this production in that regard is unequivocal. Anyone who misses out on the opportunity to see this production is doing themselves a disservice; it's one of the best shows you'll have the chance to see.

(Penobscot Theatre Company's production of 'Wit' is running through March 31. For tickets or more information, call the box office at 942-3333 or visit

Last modified on Thursday, 21 March 2013 10:57

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