MONMOUTH – “Wit” is not about death, even though its leading character is dying of cancer and is in a hospital bed through a lot of this play.

“Wit” is not about the complicated 17th century poetry of John Donne, although she talks about it all the time.

“Wit” is not about medical research, although the doctors who attend Dr. Viviane Bearing through a “full dose” chemotherapy barrage are intent on learning as much as they can.

“Wit” is about rediscovering humanity when it gets lost in too much detail.

Colleen Mahan delivers a tour de force performance in the Monmouth Community Players’ current run of the Pulitzer Prize winner at Cumston Hall. It continues with performances Friday, Saturday and Sunday, Jan. 23-25.

Mahan’s characterization of a hard-as-nails professor of Donne’s metaphysical poetry is complete. She packs unbelievable power into her tiny stature as she confronts both her character’s advanced ovarian cancer and the unfeeling attitudes of her physicians. Ultimately, she comes to terms with her own mortality and the necessity for human interaction she had avoided most of her life.

Near the end, Bearing says, “Now is not the time for verbal swordplay … Now is the time for simplicity. Now is the time for, dare I say it, kindness. I thought being extremely smart would take care of it. But I see that I have been found out.”

Lucy Rioux, who returns as a director for MCP after about four years, effectively turns the sparse hospital room setting into an intersection for several lives driven by obsession for extreme analysis at the expense of compassion.

Vincent Ratsavong also gives an excellent performance as Jason Posner, a research fellow who had been a student in Bearing’s poetry class. He absorbed her passion for precision and applied it to his own commitment to medicine. His bedside manner never gets beyond a perfunctory “How are you feeling today?” as he peruses the chart.

Dr. Harvey Kelekian is played by Raymond Fletcher, and he shows the audience an appropriate balance between his professionalism and an implied recognition of the patient’s humanity.

Professor Bearing’s nurse, Susie, is the one who breaks through the clinical coldness surrounding the extreme emotional and physical ordeal of the illness. Buffy Cloutier is very good in that role with her projection of sincere warmth and concern.

Susie’s care is critical to Vivian’s ultimately peaceful end – her personal encounter with what Donne meant when he wrote “Death be not proud.”

Jeanne Fletcher’s portrayal of Professor E.M. Ashford, Bearing’s teacher, is brief, but pivotal to the play’s heart in her visit to the dying woman.

Matthew Stone, Karen Lipovsky and Rob Coates also do well with their roles as students/technicians.

“Wit” takes on challenging issues. It doesn’t avoid difficult concepts and it doesn’t gloss over the intellectual complexities – the title’s allusion to living by one’s wits. It is engrossing theater, yet it has lots of light moments.

This play was written by Margaret Edson, who drew upon her observations of cancer patients when she worked at an oncology/AIDS unit at a research hospital in Washington. She won the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for Drama with this first play. It swept nearly every 1999 drama award given for an off-Broadway play.

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