Evan Zimmerman’s senior project, Margaret Edson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play “W;t,” envelopes you with white hospital curtains from the moment you walk into the Whitney Humanities Center. “We wanted people to be able to see and experience as much as possible the process of what it’s like [to be battling cancer],” said Zimmerman. “We wanted to create the atmosphere of an extended hospital room.”
In “W;t,” Dr. Vivian Bearing, a renowned scholar of 17th century poetry specializing in John Donne, battles ovarian cancer with a mixture of steely schoolmarm aplomb and sly academic wit. At the opening of the play Vivian (played by Ren Johns ’04) comes onstage bedecked in a hospital gown dragging and IV tube behind her.
“It is not my intention to give away the plot, but I think I die at the end,” she said.
Vivian’s death, however, is not a looming force imminently hanging over the action in the play; rather, it is a lens through which she examines her life. At one point in the script, Vivian looks back on her younger self first opening her eyes to the paradoxes and geniuses of Donne’s writing. Her mentor, E.M. Ashford, corrects Vivian’s work by showing her a grammatically accurate edition of a Donne sonnet that closes with the line “And death be not proud, comma, Death thou shalt die.” Vivian is thrown into academic ecstasies by the difference that the one small comma makes. She says, “The insuperable barrier between one thing and another is — just a comma? Simple human truth, uncompromising scholarly standards? They’re connected?”
The play itself rests on that small breath of time, the comma between life and death. Vivian fights to make that breath last as long as possible, battling her cancer with the same rigor and “uncompromising standards” with which she approaches a difficult Donne text. The comma, the division, also comes to represent the divide between the physicians’ desire to use her body as a site of research and Vivian’s attempt to hang on to her autonomy and humanity.
Zimmerman noted that the piece has held a special meaning for her for several years.
“The majority of people probably know someone who has had cancer or whose lives have been touched by cancer,” she said. “I feel that showing what people really go through is incredibly important.”
One thing that had made previous productions of “W;t” so powerful has been the aura of authenticity. The opportunity to stage the show at Yale meant that the cast and crew benefited from a multitude of academic and medical resources ranging from the English department to the Yale School of Nursing. Due to the difficult and highly cerebral nature of the script material focusing on John Donne, Zimmerman got a head start researching “ages ago,” seeking the support of Yale professor and noted Donne scholar Annabel Patterson.
Producer Carla Federman ’04 said the Yale School of Nursing was “amazingly helpful and very supportive,” allowing the cast to borrow real hospital equipment for the set.
“The [School of Nursing] teaches this script in their required curriculum,” Johns said. “They believe in the power of this message.”
That message has extended far beyond hospital examination rooms. The intersections of ethics and medicine have become hugely popular and prominent in contemporary cultural debate — one only has to attend the “Leading Issues in Bioethics” class and fight for a seat in the jam-packed Yale Law School auditorium to realize that questions of experimental drug trials, euthanasia, doctor-patient relationships, and patient autonomy are brimming at the forefront of not a few minds. “W;t” addresses these issues in a completely undidactic manner while also bringing an incredibly human and poignant face to medical issues that a student might only get to experience as a dry case study in a textbook.
“Scripts like that are few and far between,” Federman said, commenting on the ability of “W;t” to address serious and tragic topics with beauty and humor. Federman said she was “struck” by the way the script expressed a powerful commentary on the potentially dangerous intersections between authority and medicine.
“It’s an intense piece,” Johns said. She said, like Federman, she was sold on the project from the moment that she read the script over the summer.
Because of the intensity of the work, Federman said that the subject matter “was hard– for just about everyone working on the show. You work on so many theatrical productions throughout the year, and you start to think, it’s just another show. And then, at some point it strikes you [that the script is] so powerful. Everyone at one point, I think, had that moment.”
“It’s a tough show to do, and a tough show to see,” said Federman. “As a producer, I’m not supposed to say this, but even if no tickets were sold, as long as a few people can walk away from this knowing that we’ve taught them just a little bit about the experience, that will be enough for me.”
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