The Poetry and Characters of "Wit"
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.
This poem is written by John Donne, a poet who lived and wrote poetry around the same time as William Shakespeare. (Late 1500’s early 1600’s). At the time of writing Donne’s poetry was highly prized, and later in his live he was a well known preacher. His poetry was well known and circulated after his death, but fell out of style until the 1800’s when it was rediscovered.
You may be wondering “what does all of this has to do with our upcoming production of Wit?” Fair question. Wit tells the story of Dr. Vivian Bearing, PhD a university professor of poetry who is diagnosed with stage IV metastatic ovarian cancer. In our production of Wit, Dr. Bearing is played by Jennifer Gilg. (You may have seen Jennifer on the stage previously as Maria in The Sound of Music in 2008). Dr. Bearing’s focus of study and teaching is the poetry of John Donne. And the particular poem mentioned at the beginning is a theme throughout the production. This post won’t break down what this poem might mean, or get into the nitty gritty of the punctuation as they do in the show, but instead, will focus on the show, and the relationship that the characters have to poetry and Death (capital D!).
The setting of Wit is mostly a hospital where Vivian is being treated for her cancer. As you might expect, the characters that she most frequently interacts with are the doctors and nurses at said hospital. However, this is a university hospital, so it’s not just doctors, but student doctors, and their teacher. One such teacher is Harvey Kelekian, MD, the chief of medical oncology who is played by returning Born-in-a-Barn player Bill Bossman. (Bill portrayed Mr. Green in our 2022 production of Visiting Mr. Green) Dr. Kelekian has been in medicine for at least 25 years by the time we see him treating Dr. Bearing. Both are teachers and they commiserate that the flaw of a student is that they are constantly learning, meaning they have not yet “learned.” Dr. Kelekian, at this point in his career is no stranger to Death, but recognizes that some people are.
On the other hand, Dr. Kelekian’s student, Dr. Jason Posner, a clinical fellow, is certainly still learning. Marcus Manley portrays Dr. Posner, and this will be his first regular Lofte production, though he did grow up performing on the Lofte stage in the Missoula Children’s Theatre workshops (He was the Locksmith in Little Red Riding Hood!). Dr. Posner also happens to be a former student of Dr. Bearing - she had one of the most challenging classes on campus, and he wanted to challenge himself. Dr. Posner’s relationship with Death is a bit more complicated. He recognizes that death is an inevitability, but struggles with the emotional considerations, in more ways than one.
When it comes to difficult emotions and conversations, the audience can find comfort in the character of Susie Monahan. Susie is played by Roz Paar for whom this will be not only her second Lofte production, but her second Lofte production this year! (She played Larkin Barkin in Doublewide, Texas, which kicked off our 2023 season.) Susie, though she is the same age as Dr. Posner has a BSN (Bachelor of Science in Nursing) and is an RN (Registered Nurse). She is a great source of empathy and compassion. She takes care of her patients, and, as such, is Dr. Bearing’s primary nurse. Susie sees Dr. Bearing in her highs and lows, and, no matter the outcome, follows her patients instructions to the best of her ability, even if it’s not what she really wants for them, she respects and understands their decisions, and sees that their wishes are carried out.
Of course not every character is centered around the hospital. We also see E. M. Ashford who was Dr. Bearing’s teacher when she was in university. The character of Dr Ashford is based on the English literary critic Helen Gardener, is an expert on John Donne and, in our production, is portrayed by Brigette Chizek, who is new to the Lofte stage. We see the two discuss the deep details of poetry, down to the semi-colon, but also bond over simpler stories as well. Dr. Ashford is a wise woman, and maybe the person in this play who understands Death the best. John Donne’s poetry has taught her that death can be contemplated, but it is not a puzzle to solve. It is something that exists, and it is something to contemplate. Ironically, she does not think that John Donne’s depiction or discussions of death is something to be put on performance on a stage.
Many other characters help shape Dr. Bearing’s life and time in the hospital as well - lab technicians, students, and so on. Our Ensemble is made up of Chris Berger (also in his second production of 2023 as he played “Baby” in Doublewide, Texas), Melinda Mead (who was last seen on the Lofte stage as Edith Frank in 2022’s The Diary of Anne Frank), Stephanie Porter (who is doing her 3rd show at the Lofte, last seen Harvey), and Ryan Swanson (who is making his Lofte debut). These are influential people, but not quite “noteworthy” in the mind of Dr. Bearing. But ultimately they affect her more than she might realize.
Wit is a one-act show, which means there is no intermission. The entire production is less than 2 hours. It is a beautiful play. Despite Death (with a capital D) waiting in the wings for most of the production, the play is actually a story of the human spirit, and the human mind. Humans not only learn but learn from each other, and we learn the nuance of interaction and conversation, we learn about history, and art. The show is about humans - not death (with a lowercase d). The story of Wit is not one to be missed for while it is a sad story, it serves as a reminder of the beauty of the lives we live.
Get tickets to Wit at lofte.org/tickets. Performances are May 5, 6, 7, 11, 12, 13, & 14. Show time is 7:00 on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, and 2:00 on Sunday.
Contributors to Wikimedia projects. “Wit (Play).” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., 11 Aug. 2005, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wit_(play)
“John Donne.” Poetry Foundation, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/john-donne.