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TheatreVirginia presents a moving glimpse into the final days of a literary

Life and Death

In the early 1990s, Margaret Edson, a schoolteacher, sat down to write her first and only play: "Wit," a seemingly simple title for a seemingly simple play. Neither is true.

Edson's "W;t" (she titled it with a semicolon for the middle letter) is a complex and compelling work of art. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1999.

Go to TheatreVirginia. You'll find a bare stage outlined by gauze curtains. The ethereal light will draw you in. Be prepared for a remarkable experience, a trip to reality, both brutal and beautiful, and blessed, of course, with wonderful wit.

At the invitation of Vivian Bearing, a brilliant English scholar suffering from ovarian cancer, we tag along on the final two hours of her journey.

True to the theory that, in the end, our lives flash before us showing us our proudest and most regretful moments, Vivian takes us back to some of the crucial hours that shaped her life. We see the moment when, as a child, she falls in love with the magic of words; when she learns the power of punctuation from her professor and then rejects the advice to go out and live. In the classroom we see Vivian in her glory teaching the "Holy Sonnets" by John Donne who, as she says, was the greatest English poet and greatest wit. His poems are convoluted puzzles about life, death and God. One student claims, "This guy makes Shakespeare sound like a Hallmark card." In that same classroom, we see Vivian's encounter with a student, where her propensity for wit supersedes the opportunity to demonstrate "a touch of human kindness." It is a devastating moment.

Childless, parentless and without siblings, Vivian, we see, has taken Donne and his poems as family. This raises the question: Are those without human attachments less human?

Alma Cuervo's performance is superb. Unlike Emma Thompson's colder interpretation of Vivian Bearing on HBO, Cuervo connects with the audience, often flashing an engaging smile. Cuervo is warmer, but still cool. Without makeup touch-ups or costume changes, she physically regresses before us on stage. Her toughness, resolve and finally tenderness, are conveyed through a mastery of skills: facial and vocal expression and movement. A hairless head, the taut tendons of the neck, the halting steps, the damp eyes — without words — say it all.

Then there is the other layer: the words, the passion of Vivian's life. Cuervo delivers the complex text with confidence and clarity.

She introduces us to the intriguing sonnets of Donne, and like an effective teacher, makes us think, makes us work.

Andy Paris delivers an outstanding performance as Jason Posner, the young doctor who views Vivian as his former professor but more importantly, a perfect guinea pig. His callous treatment of Vivian is, to her, an often painful reflection of herself.

Michael Goodwin plays Vivian's primary physician and her father, both likable and real. Annie Murray is charming as Vivian's professor, impressive first in middle age, then as an elderly woman. Sung Yun Cho gives a convincing performance as Vivian's competent and caring nurse. Rick Brandt nails the roles of a medical student and poetry student. Sharalyn Bailey, Wesley Du and Lisa Hardin round out the ensemble.

Director Josephine Abady returned home to Richmond to direct "Wit," a play she never intended to see. As a cancer survivor herself, Abady said at one time, "I've lived 'Wit,' thank you, I don't need to see it." When Abady accepted the job, she told her actors, "This is not a play about cancer per se, it's a play about following the journey of this woman and her life and her loves." Abady's special insight into the characters and events is well-interpreted in this production. The final scene is stunning.

From the beginning of "Wit," just as in real life, we know how the story will end. And just as in real life, we are reminded that how one makes the journey, is what matters.

"Wit" runs through Feb. 2 at TheatreVirginia, 2800 Grove Ave. Tickets are $28-$36 and can be purchased at the box office: 353-6161.

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