Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Book Mark: "Death, Be Not Proud" - An In-depth look at Wit

Wit: A PlayWit is Margaret Edison’s 1999 Pulitzer Prize-winning play about a middle-aged woman diagnosed with ovarian cancer. In 2001, director Mike Nichols and actress/screenwriter Emma Thompson joined forces to bring this unflinchingly honest story to the small screen. The result of this pairing is an exquisitely rendered drama about dying and death and living and life.

Vivian Bearing (tenderly rendered by Emma Thompson) is an English literary scholar who has spent her life deciphering the compounding thematics of John Donne’s metaphysical poetry. She is archetypal of someone who has focused on her head over her heart. As a result of this focus, her colleagues and students view her as being cool and aloof, unable to relate to the living world.

The film opens with Bearing discussing her diagnosis of stage four metastatic ovarian cancer. Her doctor, Dr. Kelekian (Christopher Lloyd) is trying to convince her to undertake a grueling eighth-month experimental chemotherapy treat. His method of convincing includes appealing to her perceived strength, that she needs to be “tough” to get through. What is unspoken yet clearly understood by both parties during this exchange is that this treatment is not going to save her; it is merely a means for Kelekian to gain data for his research.

Vivian is most stoic throughout the following events, which include an uncomfortable pelvic exam administered by a former student. As she continues to be prodded and mistreated by technicians, and then treated as a mere specimen rather than a person, Vivian’s resolve slowly starts to crack. Through direct camera engagements, Vivian lets the audience into the loneliness that is suffocating her, the terrible side effects of the chemotherapy that are killing her, and the ever-spreading cancer that is destroying her.

We see Vivian’s life in the form of flashbacks occurring at various stages of her treatment. These flashbacks provide windows of insight into the evolution of Vivian Bearing the scholar and Vivian Bearing the patient. We witness a very special moment between a very young Vivian and her father (Harold Pinter), who encourages her enthrallment with words courtesy of The Runaway Bunny. We see her working with her mentor E.M. Ashford (Eileen Atkins), who encourages Vivian to experience the world outside the text, to live life beyond the words.

Vivian uses her intellect and wit to shield herself from life and now the anxieties of death. The play mirrors her life in the character of former student Dr. Jason Posher (deliciously played by Jonathan M. Woodward with all the clumsiness required), an ambitious clinical fellow in charge of her case. Posher’s revelation that he took on research so that he would not have to deal with people is quite telling, as is his cavalier mentioning that he hated the bedside manner course he was required to take to complete his medical degree. His discomfort with people is just another version of Bearing’s, and she begins to realize that she never really taught her students anything about being human outside the textbooks.

Vivian finally comes to accept that the chemotherapy is not working and begins reaching out to people for comfort. Dr. Posher shuts down, as he is unable to comprehend how to bridge the gap between practitioner and researcher until the very end. Comfort comes in the form of Susie (played by the classy Audra McDonald), her nurse, who listens to Vivian’s concerns about death. There is an especially touching scene where the two women share a popsicle and discuss Vivian’s code status. It is however the scene with Bearing’s former mentor near the end of the film that truly ties the story together by providing a very strong, emotional coda to an already heavily emotional journey.

The play and film are all about the small moments, the little vignettes that are set up to illustrate the evolution of one woman’s existence through her journey to death. Susie tenderly rubbing lotion on Vivian’s hands as she lies unconscious from the chemotherapy seems to be a common everyday occurrence and yet we know, as the audience, that it is anything but a random act of kindness.

Nichols and Thompson have managed to capture the tenderness and nuances of the play extraordinarily. This may be Thompson’s best performance of her career as she gets to use her comedic and dramatic skills in equal doses. She is riveting as the distanced Bearing, flawlessly rendering each scene in perfect emotion and intellect and, of course, wit.

Wit is indeed all about performances, and the cast is remarkable in talent and depth. The last moments of the film are so achingly unpretentious in this respect that it is incredibly difficult to not tear up and truly feel the loss of an extraordinary life and person.

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