Neither Virgin Nor Whore: WIT at Theatre Arlington

Krista Scott in "W;t"

Krista Scott in “W;t”

We need more plays like “W;t”, winner of the 1999 Pulitzer prize for Drama by Margaret Edson, about a professor of literature facing her impending death through the lens of her life’s embrace. Vivian is neither virgin nor whore. The only pedestal she stands on is one of her own making. She isn’t any version of a woman defined by male perception, except as objectified by the patriarchal medical profession, which dehumanizes everybody regardless of gender. The actor playing her shaves her head, paints on little make-up, strolls the stage in unglamorous hospital gown. What a razor-sharp shock “W;t” must have zapped its audiences with in 1999. Too bad it didn’t get to Broadway then. Sad to say, it’s a shock to experience it today, for much the same reasons. I applaud Edison’s ruthless honesty in her creation. To a feminist critic, watching this play under any circumstance feels like imbibing a thirst-slaking draught of cool water after a long, parched march through the land of “naturalistic” retreads of stale, old, macho chestnuts, like “The Odd Couple”, for example. Please. We need more “wit” in our lives, far less of the latter.

Is there an audience for this play in Arlington? Why exactly did Theatre Arlington, where farce flourishes, choose this play for its season? Damn brave, got to hand it to them. Two strikes against it: intellectual in content and style, about a woman who transcends patriarchy. I’m in awe. I sincerely hope the house receipts pay the bills. No sarcasm intended.

Does the production work? I hope so. I didn’t get early enough press notice about it to book it into my regular rotation, so I had to see its preview performance. If you don’t know what that means, it’s the production’s “practice” run under performance conditions, its first with an audience. I don’t care how well-rehearsed a play and its cast may be – the first time an audience enters the mix, the production enters a new dimension and nobody functions with all cylinders firing.

What I liked: 1) the semi-circle playing space of a set, defined by sheer white drapes and light (Bob Lavallee, set design). Movement “behind the veil” as well as in front of it substantiated the play’s surreal context without every feeling contrived. 2) actor Jerry Downey’s performance as Dr. Posner, Vivian’s treating physician and former literature student. His ease discussing medical terms and enacting ‘procedures’ flowed naturally, never seemed “scripted”. The growing discomfort he evinced at his inner conflict over his response to Vivian’s approaching death was poignant and organic, never overstated, melodramatic.

What I disliked: 1) the intrusive “soundtrack” of hokey, soap opera style music that occasionally underscored the performance. Would you play a soundtrack under Hamlet’s soliloquies, in your right mind? The language of “W;t” soars operatically, needs no turgid accompaniment to distract from its lyrical beauty 2) the fact that Vivian’s bed was set far upstage throughout the performance; her every intimate, nuanced exchange felt needlessly remote. The play isn’t realism. Her bed could have moved around the space with the ebb and flow of Vivian’s imagination. 3) the excess of bedcovers causing the actress playing Vivian to struggle with them every time she crawled into or out of the bed. 4) the fuzzy, impossible to read screen projection of a John Donne sonnet in one scene. Is that how the play’s scripted? Or was the projection just out of focus?  I stopped listening to Vivian, trying to make it out, which took me out of the play.

What I felt unsure about: 1) Krista Scott’s performance as Vivian. It’s a huge challenge to play this role — always on stage, sliding rapidly from somewhat grounded dealing with the medical establishment to reliving key life memories from nostalgic childhood moments through university lecture peaks, while attached to rolling medical devices. Awkward, at best. There was a hesitant sameness to Scott’s delivery throughout the preview that didn’t drive the play or define the character’s arc. She’s a fine actress. I felt her performance showed promise but hadn’t arrived yet. She seemed still immersed in her role’s creative development and tread through its passage with caution. And fought those damn bedsheets. The hazards of witnessing a preview and an obligation to report what I saw…others I trust, that have seen her post-preview performance, say Scott brings Vivian to life beautifully. I know she is most capable.

Thanks, Theatre Arlington, for producing this superb play. Thanks to Emily Scott Banks for taking on the challenge of directing it and to the creative ensemble who put it all together. We need more plays like “W;t”.  We need more wit and compassion in our lives and the courage to embrace both.

“W;t”, by Margaret Edson, directed by Emily Scott Banks, runs at Theatre Arlington through April 14, 2013.

Box Office: (817)275-7661 www.theatrearlington.org

The 2012 Broadway production of “”W;t” earned nomination for a two Tony Awards: Best Revival of a Play, and for Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Play (Cynthia Nixon).  Namaste.

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