WIT by Margaret Edson, directed by Glynis Leyshon, with Seana McKenna, Joy Coghill, Jim Mezon, Alex Poch-Goldin, Kirsten Willamson, Marjorie Chan, Kevin Loring, Geneviève Steele and Todd Thomson. Presented by Canadian Stage and the Vancouver Playhouse at the Bluma Appel (27 Front East). Runs to March 10, Monday-Saturday 8 pm, matinees Wednesday 1:30 pm, Saturday 2 pm. $20-$60, limited Monday pwyc and same-day half-price rush. 416-368-3110. Rating: NNNNat the start of margaret ed- son's play Wit, with the house lights still up, Seana McKenna comes out wearing a blue hospital gown and wheeling an IV stand, a red baseball cap covering her bald head. She tells us that she's an English professor, that she has stage-four metastatic ovarian cancer ("There is no stage five") and that she dies at the end of the play.
What she doesn't tell us is that we'll be moved, to tears and laughter, during the next 100 minutes. Or that we'll be given a chance to reflect on our own lives. But that's what happens with Canadian Stage's production of Edson's remarkable play.
McKenna's Dr. Vivian Bearing is an esteemed scholar who's devoted her entire life -- professional and otherwise -- to the study of the poet John Donne. Under the care of a hospital specialist (Jim Mezon), his brilliant but insensitive fellow (Alex Poch-Goldin) and a nurse (Kirsten Willamson), she agrees to eight treatments of experimental chemotherapy to further the study of her disease.
She soon finds herself becoming a thing examined, just as she was once the cold examiner. And she learns a thing or two about the nature of kindness.
While the play's a tad manipulative -- Bearing's a bit like Ebenezer Scrooge with a PhD -- Glynis Leyshon's direction of the tidily efficient script is sound. She occasionally hits a note too hard, but it's difficult to avoid with a play that works so carefully on our developing sympathies.
There's fine work by all the cast, including Joy Coghill as Bearing's mentor, but it's the central performance that draws the audience to its feet.
McKenna journeys from a self-satisfied and arrogant woman recounting her career credentials to a figure of pity and compassion letting go of everything she's learned and valued. It's hard to think of another actor who could capture Bearing's tough core and then make us believe it as that core begins to melt. It's one of the best performances this year.