In our information age, so much data is available that some are questioning our ability to be human. Data overwhelms us, especially when some fields of inquiry can be transformed in as little as five years. While web meetings, seminars, and social media allow us to “connect” with people from distant parts of the globe, has this aspect of the information age stolen our ability to be human to those within reach? Maybe my inquiry is academic, using this same information technology to obscure the topic rather than illuminate it. While not addressing the internet directly, Magaret Edson’s 1995 play (ancient history in a silicone based world), Wit, ponders the questions of academic analysis and being human. The current production of Wit at the McCoy Grand Theatre brings this show about John Donne’s Holy Sonnets (IX and X), cancer research, and the metaphysics of life and death to the stage.
MaKayla Baker, the director and veteran cast member of McCoy Grand shows, brings her literary interest and skills, though her current college studies in English and theatre arts. Wit is an ambitious project, given the production style (highly intellectualized drama), and the audience which the McCoy Grand has nurtured (more used to comedies and musicals). But, if we do not take the risks of ambition, we would not receive the rewards of accomplishment.
Ms. Baker’s greatest achievement is her casting of Stacie Land in the lead role of Dr. Vivian Bearing. This role is demanding, in that she is on stage for 99% of the play, has 80% of the lines, and must recite John Donne sonnets from memory. Ms. Land excelled in her performance.
Dr. Bearing has the duel roles of being a professor of 17th century literature, specializing in Donne’s poetry, and being a patient-research subject for an aggressive method of chemo-therapy for the previously undetected stage 4 ovarian cancer. As she muses, wittily, “There is no stage 5”. Initially she approaches this in her role as a scholar, deconstructing the medical terminology used by her doctor, research assistances, and hospital staff.
Ms. Baker directs Ms. Land to talk to the audience from the opening lines. Often during the action of the play, she steps to the front of the stage, or when confined to bed, sits up and looks at us, to carry on a dialogue of analysis of what she is experiencing, and her analysis of how we use, or mis-use language. Sometimes, she rants about our poor understanding of words, thus obscuring meaning rather than clarifying thoughts. Sometimes, she distances herself from her experience by escaping into the dissection of words and punctuation. This style of staging creates two levels of actions: the sequence of events and the commentary on these events, at the same time.
Filling the sequence of events are the scenes in which Dr. Bearing learns of her cancer from her physician, Dr. Kelekian (Betty Stickley), receives treatments from Dr. Posner (Terry Buck Richardson), the nurse, Susie Monahan (Jen hardy), and various medical technicians (James Alt, Hunter Ayers, Isabelle Nesbit, Alexander Ritchie). During these events, as Dr. Bearing has moments of insights, she relates flashbacks when she interacted with her father (Tony Baker) while reading children’s stories at age five, with her college English professor, E. M. Ashford (Sandie Eltringham), and her students during a lecture (same as the technicians above).
During the medical and college teaching scenes, the interactions are clinical and academic. Precision is the focus, whether on diagnostic criteria or punctuation in the transcription of Donne’s last line of his Holy Sonnet X. There is little room for a human element, and exploration and experience of emotion is discarded as too subjective. Yet, Wit is about this disconnect between the objective and subjective understanding of experience.
This conflict is wonderfully displayed in two scenes. First when Dr. Kelekian informs Dr. Bearing of her diagnosis and treatment options, and later during Grand Rounds, when Dr. Kelekian, Dr. Posner, and medical students review “the patient’s case”. In each scene, the medical staff review Dr. Bearing’s status in clinic terms which lose their meaning. In contrast, Dr. Bearing steps away from the scene and talks to us about the lack of human connection in these interactions.
However, in the flashback scenes, Dr. Bearing begins to realize that in her passion for Donne’s poetry, she too has distanced herself from the human experience of the poem, by focusing on the academic analysis. She plays out one of her lectures, with four students sitting in the audience. She calls on a student, then chides him for not being prepared to discuss the Donne’s Holy Sonnet IX. She allows another student to fumble with a half-thought out series of questions, ultimately humiliating the student into silence. But, in reflecting on this, Dr. Bearing realizes that she has stifled her students, just as the doctors are constricting her.
Except for some dreary existentialist, theatre-of-the-absurd plays, most theatre is about the transformation of the characters. Through the scenes, the protagonists have some insights, which promote change. In Wit the struggle appears to be between objective and subjective experiences. Dr. Bearing and her former English instructor and nurse appear to shift to the subjective realm in the final scenes, while the medical technicians and doctors struggle to reconcile with their objectivity.
Throughout the play, the poetry has been distant and academic. Yet, when Professor Ashford visits in the hospital room, Dr. Bearing sedated with pain medications, they pass on reciting Donne’s poems. Instead Ashford talks about visiting with her five year old great-grandson. She takes out one of his books, Runaway Rabbit, and reads this instead.
The nurse, Susie, in parallel, while attending to IV’s, personal care, and other medical procedures, talks with Dr. Bearing. She specifically asks about her future interest in treatments and life-sustaining interventions. This, of course leads to the climatic scene in which medical procedures and human connection conflict. When Dr. Bearing’s heart stops, Dr. Posner demands that she be kept alive for he cannot lose his research subject. Dr. Bearing is not a person, but a data point. Yet, when challenged with the Do Not Resuscitate order, he questions what he has done. But, his inquiry is ambiguous. Has he realized that he lost his patient or his intervention protocol?
After the play, the cast and director came to the stage to answer questions and talk to the audience. While the performance had academic points of reciting lines, entering and exiting, following blocking, making light cues, and handling props, this discussion was unscripted and spontaneously. Several of the cast talked about their motivation for being in the production. Many in the cast had experienced the medical and human side of cancer treatment when family members received treatments or died. Others worked in various roles in the healthcare system from 911 dispactors, first responders, to respiratory therapy. For them, the questions were not academic.
I reflect on my own work in healthcare. When talking with patients, gathering information on their daily routines and ability to function, I listen for more than what they do. I listen for how they experience those roles and routines. I seek to understand how they relate their activities to their emotions, their knowledge, and their faith. By learning about their experience of activities, I can go beyond how they do tasks, to why they do them. The purpose of data points is to connect with what is human about the person.
Holy Sonnet IX
If poisonous minerals, and if that tree,
Whose fruit threw death on (else immortal) us,
If lecherous goats, if serpents envious
Cannot be damn’d, alas ! why should I be ?
Why should intent or reason, born in me,
Make sins, else equal, in me more heinous ?
And, mercy being easy, and glorious
To God, in His stern wrath why threatens He ?
But who am I, that dare dispute with Thee ?
O God, O ! of Thine only worthy blood,
And my tears, make a heavenly Lethean flood,
And drown in it my sin’s black memory.
That Thou remember them, some claim as debt ;
I think it mercy if Thou wilt forget.
Holy Sonnet X
Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery.
Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally
And death shall be no more, death, thou shalt die.