About the worst to be said for Aurora Theatre’s production of the cancer drama “Wit” is how thoroughly it confirms what a profound shame it is that Margaret Edson has never written another play.
A one-hit wonder in the most positive and truly wondrous sense, the Washington, D.C., native wrote it in 1991; it premiered on stage in California four years later; the show finally made it to off-Broadway in 1998; a stellar HBO movie version (with Emma Thompson, directed by Mike Nichols) won some Emmys; its belated 2012 Broadway debut got a few Tony nominations; and, along the way, “Wit” also brought Edson the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1999.
But, over these 15 years now, rather than actively pursuing a career in theater, Edson earned a master’s degree in English from Georgetown University (to go with her undergraduate degree in Renaissance history from Smith College); she taught first grade and English as a second language in the D.C. Public Schools system for six years; and, in 1998, she relocated here to Atlanta, where, after several years teaching kindergarten, she currently teaches sixth-grade social studies at Inman Middle School.
There’s no dispute that “Wit” is a beautifully constructed piece of work, by turns fiercely intellectual and unapologetically emotional — and it’s altogether strikingly realized for Aurora by director Tlaloc Rivas and actress Mary Lynn Owen.
Although Rivas is based in the theater department at the University of Iowa, he previously guest-directed the Lawrenceville company’s Spanish-language “Mariela in the Desert” in 2014. On the other hand, Owen has enjoyed a long and productive career on the local scene, and demonstrations of her masterful range include such recent roles as a chic Manhattan sophisticate in “Six Degrees of Separation” (with Actor’s Express) and an elderly Southern matriarch in “Dividing the Estate” (with Theatrical Outfit).
As Vivian Bearing, a stern college professor of metaphysical poetry who’s facing a losing battle with stage 4 ovarian cancer, Owen essentially has us at “Hi,” her opening line. In retelling and reliving Vivian’s story directly to the audience, she creates a deeply thoughtful and heartfelt rapport with us. “I think I die at the end (so) I have less than two hours to live,” she confides with a knowing smile at the start of the play. “There is no stage 5.”
The esteemed Chris Kayser offers solid support as Vivian’s clinical doctor (and, in a childhood flashback, her encouraging father). Leaving a more memorable impression in two powerful scenes, the equally proven Marianne Fraulo excels as Vivian’s academic mentor, demanding in hindsight, perhaps, but overwhelmingly kind and sympathetic in the end (get out your tissues).
The spare but stately set is designed by the team of Isabel and Moriah Curley-Clay, the sharp and focused lighting by Kevin Frazier. In one of Rivas’ visual flourishes, during one of Vivian’s lectures, the projected text of a John Donne poem transforms the stage into a classroom blackboard of sorts. Another depicts an indelible final image of Vivian, as Owen ultimately bears her soul with an extraordinary bravery and grace.
In short, like Edson’s heroine herself, in matters of both the heart and the mind, Aurora’s “Wit” is an absolute tour de force.