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Review: Wit at Riverside Theatre

Review by Abbie Gallagher


Vivian Bearing is 50, in the prime of her life, highly respected and at the height of a stellar academic career. She's a fiercely rational academic with a passion for poetry. And she has just weeks to live. 


Margaret Edson’s Pulitzer Prize winning play is not always easy viewing. Over 90 minutes, the audience joins Dr Vivian Bearing (Cheryl Ward) as she recounts her journey to her deathbed. From initial diagnosis of stage 4 metastatic ovarian cancer to her final hours, there is little left out. Every minute of pain, trauma, loneliness, fear and regret is on full display.


The concept of mortality is something everyone struggles with. But from the moment  Vivian arrives onstage, clad in a hospital gown and pulling her IV alongside her, the theme of death is literally staring you in the face, and it won’t look away.

For the record, neither did I. 


And how could I look away, with Cheryl Ward’s magnetic performance as the sardonic Vivian Bearing? How could anyone not marvel at her skill, carrying the weight of the production on her shoulders? How can one not be riveted as she recites intricate, fast paced dialogue that spans the full spectrum of human emotion without batting an eye? 


The vast majority of Wit is delivered as a monologue directly to the audience. Vivian has no family, no real friends thanks to her prickly demeanour and a lifetime of relying on wit to interact with her students. Her entire existence revolved around teaching John Donne poetry and researching. Now she’s being subjected to uncomfortable and often humiliating medical tests. Examined and treated by doctors (well portrayed by Yannick Lawry and Kyra Belford-Thomas) who are far more interested in the data they can collect from Vivian than acknowledging her as a human being. 

It only makes sense that Vivian talks directly to the audience as she stares down death with nobody at her side. Because at the end of her life, we, the audience, are all she has.


Well, perhaps that’s going a bit far. Vivian is not entirely alone in the hospital. Among the impersonal and often cold medical staff, she has Susie, a ward nurse beautifully portrayed by Hailey McQueen. There’s also her former teacher Professor Ashford (Helen Tonkin) the only visitor she receives. 


The beauty of the scenes involving these two characters is how it shows the absolute necessity of human connection. How the smallest gesture of kindness and empathy can truly change something or someone. And in the world we live in, it’s a desperately needed reminder.


It’s worth seeing Wit for the cast alone, but you’ll also be treated to clever staging, impressive lighting and a very clever script. I was very glad to see such a solid production at Riverside Theatres, and if nothing else, it certainly left me wanting to read John Donne.


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