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Sally Wingert gives a must-see performance in the whip-smart 'Wit'

Hilary Roberts Photography

Hilary Roberts Photography

Margaret Edson’s Pulitzer-winning 1995 play Wit is a masterfully crafted piece of work. Connecting the Holy Sonnets of John Donne to the experiences of a woman being treated for terminal cancer, the play both extrapolates and demonstrates its title’s wide range of meanings, all while managing to both move and amuse. The leading role is a spectacular showcase for a talented actor, and they don’t come much more talented than Sally Wingert.

Wit

Artistry at Bloomington Center for the Arts
$21-$30

Wingert stars in a superb new production of the piece, now being presented by Artistry at the Bloomington Center for the Arts’ Black Box Theater. Benjamin McGovern directs this probing meditation on mortality and meaning with a sure grasp on the play’s complex structure and meta-theatrical conceit.

At the opening, Wingert strolls onto the bare, raised stage wearing a hospital gown and rolling the stand that holds her IV drip bag. Her character, Vivian Bearing, addresses the audience directly. A professor of English literature — specializing in Donne — Vivian prides herself on speaking frankly and applying her sharp intelligence to this sudden challenge.

Of course, you can’t puzzle your way out of a cancer diagnosis, and as the play progresses, Edson argues that Donne was similarly unable to solve his own existential crisis. He wrote some beautiful poetry in the attempt, though, and Vivian’s struggles become their own kind of poetry, at once earthy and profound.

Vivian is both a character in and the narrator of her own story, commenting wryly on the ways in which a stage drama is inadequate to capture the full scope of her trials. Edson once worked in an oncology ward like the one where the play is set, and Wit is acutely alive to the many dimensions of human interaction there. As an academic herself, Vivian finds common ground with the researchers overseeing her treatment — initially, but not only, in their shared complaints about lazy students.

Wingert’s performance is sublime. She has complete command of timing and tone, and her humanity radiates from beneath Vivian’s dryly loquacious facade. The supporting cast is uneven, though. Corey DiNardo is stiff (in some ways the character demands it, and in others it doesn’t) as the young doctor who once had Vivian as a teacher, while Cristina Florencia Castro’s nurse is likable but bland. Barbara Berlovitz is a standout, communicating deep love and sorrow in the role of Vivian’s mentor, Dr. Ashford.

The play relies on precise transitions, as Vivian segues from narrator to actor — sometimes in the middle of a scene. McGovern manages this with aplomb, aided by Mary Shabatura’s subtle lighting design and Chris Moen’s quiet but crucial soundscape. Members of the supporting ensemble wander in and out of the theater doors, evoking the mysterious comings and goings that surround any hospital patient.

It all adds up to a powerful experience, one that draws tears without jerking them. (Vivian would hate that.) Whip-smart yet accessible, Artistry’s powerful production of this contemporary classic is a must-see.

IF YOU GO:

Wit
Artistry at Bloomington Center for the Arts
1800 W. Old Shakopee Rd., Bloomington
952-563-8575; through May 28