Lindsay Empringham (left) and Dinah Watts let down barriers in Wit.
WIT by Margaret Edson, directed by Barbara Larose (Alumnae Theatre, 70 Berkeley). To October 11. Pwyc-$20. 416-364-4170. See Continuing. Rating: NNN
The lesson learned by professor Vivian Bearing in Margaret Edson's Wit is that one can't fully live in the head.
A specialist in John Donne's poetry, Vivian takes the audience on a tour of her life after she learns and deals with - or sometimes fails to deal with - the fact that she's in the final stage of ovarian cancer.
Leading us through academic memories and confrontations with health care people who aren't always caring, Vivian relies on the same irony, paradox and wordplay used by her favourite poet. She discovers, though, that escaping into the intellect won't stop the body from deteriorating. Worse, that realization propels her into emotional truths more uncomfortable than physical pain.
If this sounds like a dispiriting night at the theatre, it's not. Edson uses humour and biting cleverness to give depth to Vivian's journey. Vivian can be as ironic about herself as about those around her, and Dinah Watts's brave, open-hearted performance gives a sheen to this Alumnae production.
Onstage for the whole production, Watts moves from a self-assured grammarian to a fearful woman who discovers that caring and love are more vital than intellectual analyses. We watch her become frail and pinched; even her body seems to shrink as chinks appear in her guarded interaction with others.
She's well supported by Lindsay Empringham as Vivian's own professor, who tempers academic rigour with humanity, and Cathy McKim as a compassionate nurse. Adam Brooks as a young doctor who cares more about research than bedside manner also has some good moments.
While director Barbara Larose's production could use a little less opening and closing of hospital curtains, and the final moment of transcendence doesn't quite take off, much of the show is strong and moving.