Actors Co-op Theatre Company begins the second-half of their 18th season with the Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, Wit by Margaret Edson. The play is directed by Marianne Savell, former Producing Director of Actors Co-op and director of last season's The Crucible. Wit is produced by Actors Co-op member, David Scales and features actress Nan McNamara as Vivian Bearing, Ph.D. The three artists sat down for a discussion about the play.
"I would never describe Wit as a play about cancer," director Savell said in a recent interview at the Crossley Terrace Theatre just prior to rehearsal. "I think the playwright describes it best when she calls the play a story about a person finding grace for the first time. That's the essence of the play."
Producer Scales adds, "It's very frank and honest. I would describe it as a play about someone whose world is rocked by something that they know absolutely nothing about and their journey as they come to the realization that there is a life and a world, for better or worse, outside of what they've been living."
The story centers around Vivian Bearing (McNamara), a professor of 17th Century poetry specializing in the Holy Sonnets of John Donne (most famous for his sonnet "Death be not proud.."), who finds herself confronting her own mortality and embarking on a bold journey. Winner of the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award for "Best New Play," Wit is an exhilarating and harrowing 90-minute revelation, a dazzling and life-affirming play.
For McNamara, shaving her head is just one of the challenges in portraying Vivian. "The poetry and language are certainly demanding. But I also think revealing myself to the audience so directly can be a very challening thing. It's necessary to keep peeling away the layers of the character until I am completely exposed. That's the goal."
McNamara is enjoying working with director Savell again. "This is the third play we've worked on together as director and actor in the past couple of years." (Savell directed McNamara in last season's The Crucible and prior to that, a second-stage production of Hamlet. The two have collaborated on other theatrical projects during their 11-year friendship.) "There's a familarity. It's a safe playground. Part of what Vivian is all about is letting down barriers as things go on, so to be able to start with a director that I know so well enhances that process."
Wit has not been produced very often in Los Angeles in recent years, and Savell is excited to bring the story to the Co-op stages. "I think what is compelling about it and why the play works is the humor, a huge part of this play - some of it very simple, some of it very smart. The play is a great drama that is very funny. It is also a play of very complex ideas that are ultimately very simple. It's the paradox that makes the play work."
When asked about the challenges of directing Wit, Savell said, "I think casting is hugely important but we have an amazing cast, right down to the ensemble, so that's taken care of. I never dreamt I would get an actress who would be willing to shave her head. That is huge. That Nan has come to that on her own - I think that's really important. I think that is going to move people in a way that they are going to be surprised."
The trio hopes the impact on the audiences will be profound. "I think the play resonates with everyone by addressing grace and death," say Savell. "How do we face death with grace and dignity? The playwright's intention is to investigate grace and how it intersects with someone. The play makes people want to connect, to hug each other afterward, Everyone [who has scene this play previously] loves this play and lights up when they think about it." says Savell.
Producer Scales agrees and adds, "I think people will look to this play as a story of redemption, about someone who thought she knew everything about her life, was so controlled and yet learns that there is so much more. When I think of Vivian, I think of someone who is smart, honest, direct, but someone who is learning about herself and about life. I think any audience can relate to that."
The cast of Wit includes Lori Berg, Beth Castle, Phil Crowley, Alison Freeman, Nan McNamara, Tawny Mertes, Daniel J. Roberts, Kathryn Scott and Preston Vanderslice.
Opening Night for Wit is Friday, February 19, 2010 and performances run through March 6.
Tickets are $30 for adults, $25 for seniors (60 and older) and $20 for students. For reservations, call 323-462-8460, ext. 300 or visit the website at www.ActorsCo-op.org .