Entertainment » Theatre

Wit

by Christine Malcom
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Monday Jan 30, 2017
Lisa Tejero and Adithi Chandrashekar
Lisa Tejero and Adithi Chandrashekar  

To close its regrettably truncated twentieth anniversary season, The Hypocrites tackle life and death with Margaret Edson's "Wit." The Pulitzer Prize-winning drama is more standard theater-going fare than the season's first two plays, but the company's usual attention to diversity in casting and inventive use of the Heath Main Stage space at the Den Theatre make for an excellent production.

The play is largely monologue from the point of view of Vivian Bearing, a severe, brass tacks academic who agrees to an aggressive, experimental treatment for her advanced cancer. She tells her life story, picking and choosing from her childhood, academic career and the treatment itself, in the last few hours of her life. She addresses the audience directly throughout in a process that's part literary analysis, part psychoanalysis and part cultural critique.

It's the kind of play that might unravel easily, but Marti Lyons deftly handles each thread with her adept direction and thoughtful staging. This begins with the decision to set the action more or less in the round.

The audience, on risers and slightly offset from one another on the four sides of the stage, becomes part of the constant scrutiny that characterizes the end of this woman's life. She turns in place, frustrated and disoriented as she struggles to provoke a response from nurses and orderlies, from doctors and technicians, from the audience itself.

The rest of the cast gives the audience a taste of the patient's world, as they rapidly shift gurneys and beds, desks and task chairs, on and off stage. Employing cast as crew isn't just a practical necessity, but a dramatic choice. They turn their backs on us and focus their attention on charts, images, and isolated parts of Vivian's body. They ally themselves with the the stark, highly mobile pieces of Courtney O'Neill's set, both abandoning Vivian as a person in service to their work, and simultaneously giving her center stage.

In the same vein, Christine Pascual's subtle costume design deliberately doesn't quite transform the ensemble members as they shift from role to role. They move from undergraduate students to medical residents to technicians, from lead researchers to father figures; they are, at each term, adorned with the symbols of their office, and yet in each role they are fundamentally the same and fundamentally apart from Vivian, a woman struck down by disease.

Michael Stanfill's lighting design is crucial to directing the audience's rapid shifts of attention from one part of the stage to the other. But more than this, it offers subtle, yet vital, cues so subtle to where and when Vivian is in her memory at any given moment.

As with the staging, though, Stanfill's design is not merely practical. In conjunction with Kevin O'Donnell's Sound Design and Rasean Davonte Johnson's stunning projections, it facilitates some of the play's most heartbreakingly beautiful dramatic moments.

As Vivian, Lisa Tejero gives an excellent performance. Frosty and upright from the beginning, she never lets the character veer into easy stereotypes. She handles the wry humor with ease and a strong sense of timing that she gradually lets slip as the end of her illness takes her.

Adithi Chandrashekar plays wonderfully opposite Tejero as Susie, Vivian's nurse. Like Tejero, she never lapses into something so simple as the lone, human, empathetic character. She is believably bossy, but even as she necessarily steamrolls over Vivian from time to time, there's a human touch to it.

Robert Cornelius also connects productively with Tejero's performance and the character of Vivian. As Dr. Kelekian, her Oncology team lead, the two bond over frustration with students, and a thread of mutual respect runs through their relationship. All the same, Kelekian, like Vivian herself, is distant and detached. Cornelius injects this same reality into his brief scene with Vivian as a small child, giving the audience insight into what makes the woman tick.

This is further true of Millie Hurley's performance as Vivian's mentor, Professor Ashford. Although this character feels the most manufactured in the play, the rapport between Hurley and Tejero makes the most of it.

Eduardo Xavier Curley-Carrillo's performance does, initially, come off as stereotypical. As Kelekian's Fellow, he is impatient with the academic requirement to engage with the whole patient, not just the cancer. He responds testily to Kelekian's constant reminder that he's doing clinical work.

Throughout the play, though, the actor builds to a speech about his passion for his work that echoes and mirrors Vivian's entire story. It's exceptionally well done, so much so that it adds depth to the character from start to finish.

"Wit" runs through February 19 at the Den Theatre's Heath Main Stage, 1329-1333 N. Milwaukee St. in Chicago. For tickets or information, call 773-398-7028 or visit www.the-hypocrites.com

Christine Malcom is a Lecturer in Anthropology at Roosevelt University and Adjunct Faculty in Liberal Arts and Visual and Critical Studies at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She is a physical anthropologist, theater geek, and all-around pop culture enthusiast.


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