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Art Works

Summer 2002

Radio series offers
intimate visits with writers

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Mentor shares art and life

The creative mentor

The Griffin & the Minor Canon

Interview with David Selby

What is W;t about?

Quality arts education?

How can I help students in my
community get a quality arts

WV songwriters on new CD

Quilting the Sun: Journey of
a Play

Dance from your heart

New festival celebrates

What is W;t about?

By Sam Holdren
Photos by Nichole Pridemore

“With this play, what do you tell people?” asked cast-member Richard Ressmeyer. “[Tell them] it’s a play about cancer? Well, that doesn’t work. Tell them it’s about metaphysical poetry? Who wants to see that?”

Margaret Edson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play W;t provided an advertising challenge. Say that W;t is about cancer, and the play looks like a real downer. Just look at the premise: Dr. Vivian Bearing, a professor and scholar of John Donne and metaphysical poetry, narrates the end of her life as she loses her battle with ovarian cancer. For anyone without a personal stake, this 95-minute play doesn’t sound like a day at the seashore.

Karin Shirey walks cast and crew through informed consent process. Karin Shirey (far left) walks cast and crew through informed consent process. The irony is that while Edson’s play is a multi-layered race to Vivian’s mortal finish line, the author has injected a great dose of often-surprising humor to alleviate the soporific effect the subject matter might have on a general audience. In other words, it’s funny and won’t put you to sleep, as Charleston Stage Company’s recent acclaimed production made evident.

Director Debbie Rainey-Haught credited Edson’s timely subject matter and the concise style as reasons for her own desire to direct the local production. “The way [Vivian] faced her end of life was just amazing to me,” she said, keen on the fact that many people have a natural fear of death, yet still must make uncomfortable decisions in the end.

Becky Kimmons isn’t normally bald. But she shaved her head to play Vivian, the ovarian cancer patient. Perhaps a bigger challenge was the memorization of almost fifty pages of dialogue. While W;t contains an ensemble cast, the play is practically a monologue for Vivian as other characters are carefully interwoven throughout. With so much dialogue, Kimmons could easily have blanked onstage, or recited a passage from a completely different part of the script. Instead, Vivian not only arrived on opening night, she hoisted the production on the strength of her presence, courtesy of Kimmons.

Ashley Wilhelm, a Communications major at West Virginia State College, played the role of Dr. Jason Posner, the medical fellow assigned to Dr. Bearing. “He’s a go-getter, he’s brilliant, but he wasn’t a good people person,” said Wilhelm of his character.

Wilhelm, a self-described “people person” who works part-time as a bellman, understood that his character ran the risk of not being liked. “His goal is to cure cancer,” he said, with characteristically distinctive gesticulations. “Eventually, if he reaches his goal, nobody will have to go through the treatment that Dr. Bearing went through.”

Chris Kelly, radiology technologist, shows cast members some procedures and technology currently in use.
Chris Kelly, radiology technologist, shows cast members some procedures and technology currently in use.

Trish Brandt, who in real life is a neonatal nurse-practitioner, played Susie, a kind-hearted nurse. W;t gave Brandt a very simple reason to be involved onstage and behind the scenes. It was the first time in her life that anyone had portrayed what she does accurately.

Never knowing when she might be called away from rehearsals, Brandt often served as the answer-lady for all the technical questions offered by the cast. Her true occupation was evident in the way she walked, the way she pushed the wheelchair, always with total focus and awareness of why she was there.

At the end of each show, while other actors greeted the audience or changed into their street clothes, Brandt immediately began resetting her props for the next night, helping to make sure each night’s operation would run smoothly. Quite possibly, the only thing that could stop her work ethic was an affinity for sushi.

Preparing the cast

In preparation for the their roles as doctors and technicians, the ensemble cast toured the radiology department and the Center for Cancer Research at Charleston Area Medical Center. They became acquainted with the machines used to conduct CT Scans, Upper GIs and Chest X-rays, thanks to people like Chris Kelly, a radiology technologist who prep patients for the Upper GI.

Ashley Wilhelm (left) is instructed in medical procedure as part of CAMC's partnership with Charleston Stage Company
Ashley Wilhelm (left) is instructed in medical procedure as part of CAMC's partnership with Charleston Stage Company

“I try to make them as comfortable as possible,” he says. In the interest of keeping patients informed, he tries to speak loudly and use more details, especially since most of his patients are elderly.

Since W;t can also be described as a play about medical ethics, informed consent is a very important issue for the ensemble. In the play — written ten years ago — the signing of the consent form is almost an afterthought.

According to cancer research nurse Karin Shirey, patients in real life must read through a seven- to eight-page form, initial the bottom of each page, then give a signature on the final page. Educating a patient can last several hours, and may involve the education of an entire family.

Shirey, who shows the signs of a busy person — namely, written notes on her palm—loves her job. In the same room where patients and their families are guided through the consent forms, she explained to the ensemble that “denial is a big part of cancer. When you start feeling pain from ovarian cancer, you’re in trouble.”

The lingering question

After a successful run, one question remained: What is W;t about?

Everyone offered a different answer. Rainey-Haught said “discovery,” but admitted that the text is so richly layered that new meanings can always be found. Ensemble member Kelli Mace said the play is “about a person finding out that she’s human.”

Brandt and Kimmons agreed that the play is about redemption. Kimmons added that “when she is brought down to the lowest common denominator of humanity, she finally accepts redemption by simply saying [to the audience], “I’m sorry.’”

According to Ressmeyer, W;t is a confirmation of life stories and a self-examination of the life-story we build through our choices, labors, loves, gains and losses.

Quite simply, what is W;t about? Ninety-five minutes.