Shortly before eight o’clock on the last evening in September, an announcement rang out through the lobby of Fells Point Corner Theatre: “Ladies and gentlemen, for the first time in 570 days, the house is open.” Thus began the 2021-22 season of one of Baltimore’s best, small theater companies. The people at FPCT most certainly did not choose a lighthearted romp to celebrate their return to in-person performance. Margret Edson’s 1999 Pulitzer Prize-winning “Wit” is a brave choice, in which success or failure can be determined by a single casting decision. The company mitigated its risk by choosing familiar material. This is the theater’s second production of the play—their first was in 2003, directed by Arena Players’ Donald Owens. This time, the reins are in the hands of Lindsey R. Barr, who also directed last year’s “The Mineola Twins” for FPCT (MdTG review). As with Paula Vogel’s “Mineola,” Barr is dealing here with a script that’s old enough to drink. Of the two, “Wit” ages better.
Kay-Megan Washington’s performance is the best thing you will see on any stage this year.
The play centers on Dr. Vivian Bearing, a scholar of 17th century English poetry, who receives grim news from her oncologist. It’s the “C” word and it’s stage four. “There is no stage five,” she tells us. In fact, Dr. Bearing tells us a lot throughout the play. Sometimes addressing the audience as students in one of her college classes on John Donne, other times speaking to us as witnesses to her “play.” Bearing employs or rejects a fourth wall at will—not quite randomly, always deliberately. She also speaks to fellow characters—her doctor, his research fellow, a nurse, and a variety of hospital folk all double in flashback vignettes and all connected by Bearing’s direct addresses. Her journey is predictable, and Bearing herself even spoils the ending early on. The disease is “insidious” and the experimental treatment is “pernicious.” Things don’t go well. The teacher becomes the student, and is taught to loosen her taut reliance on cleverness for its own sake. With a clumsy director or mediocre casting, “Wit” can be easily imagined as a trite melodrama with not much going for it. But the production at FPCT is a near masterpiece.
Kay-Megan Washington is a very familiar stage actor in these parts, whose star is on the rise nationally. It won’t be long before we’re all left saying we “knew her when” she wowed us in Strand Theater’s “Little Women” (MdTG review) and a long list of other local performances. But none can hold a candle to her tour de force in “Wit.” Go to D.C., Chicago, or even New York City, and Washington’s performance in this production is still the best thing you’ll see on any stage this year. There’s more than just a healthy-to-sick transformation to navigate here. Bearing is a very funny character too, though her use of humor is under a tight control which she must eventually relinquish. “I’m a scholar,” she says, “or I was, when I had shoes and eyebrows.” Her humanization through the advance of her illness is 1,000 times more than just a smoothing of professorial rough edges. A lesser actor may not find that, or show it to us. A lesser director might not ask for it. Director Barr impresses with almost every single choice of what to include and what to leave out. The obvious crux of the production is the lead’s performance, and Barr does a great job of limiting distractions from Washington’s amazing work. The stage is bare. Set and lighting use very little color. Props, costumes, sound, and projections are held to a minimum. Aside from skillfully keeping out of Washington’s way, Barr orchestrates many, many moving parts (mostly the six other actors) through lots of transitions, and it is never intrusive. There are also moments of overlapping dialogue which are directed better than any we’ve seen. As Bearing breaks away from an ongoing conversation to address the audience, her scene partner doesn’t freeze but drops to pianissimo and keeps going. Brilliant. At times during projections, Washington steps in front of the screen, covering her face and body with the words of one of Donne’s Holy Sonnets. The visual effect is fierce.
Wonderful casting rounds out the ensemble. John Dignam as the doctor, Willem Rogers as his assistant, and Dana Woodson as the nurse are all intensely human and professionally detached at the same time. Vanessa Eskridge plays Bearing’s colleague and mentor, both in flashback and in a final scene, making the most of a smaller opportunity to show that character’s growth over time. Isaiah Mason Harvey and Kylie Miller do great work in several small roles each.
Bruce Kapplin’s set, besides sparse, is almost constantly moving and that gives Lighting Designer Alec Lawson a lot to play with. Lawson is a master of restraint, rejecting color dynamics in favor of contrast and sharpness. It works. Jacob Zeranko’s sound design is very, very quiet. Maggie Flanigan’s costumes are realistic and practical. All of the show’s production elements can best be summarized by Dr. Bearing’s line “Now is the time for simplicity.”
Now is also the time to purchase tickets to “Wit.” The quality of this production demands that every seat be occupied, and when word gets out about this show that will very likely happen.
Running Time: 97 minutes with no intermission.
Advisory: Death, profanity.
“Wit” runs through October 24, 2021 at Fells Point Corner Theatre, 251 S. Ann Street in Baltimore. For tickets call (410) 878-0228 or purchase online. UPDATE: Streaming on Broadway on Demand November 6-7, 2021.