FARGO – As a literary scholar specializing in the works of John Dunne, Vivian Bearing repeatedly states throughout the play “W;t” one of the 17th-century metaphysical poet’s best-known lines, “Death be not proud.”
With its version of the 1999 Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Theatre B has a lot to be proud of. The troupe opened a four-week run of the play with a powerful performance Thursday night.
The 90-minute one-act is a tour-de-force for Bearing, a proud scholar we see humbled by the Stage 4 ovarian cancer and the relentless chemotherapy treatment her doctors advise. It’s a prime role, and Carrie Wintersteen does it great justice.
The charismatic actress almost makes us like Bearing, a character so single-mindedly focused on her studies she has forgone any meaningful human relationships or even interactions. But the play isn’t about making friends as much as it is about coming to grips with mortality and one’s legacy and place in the world. Wintersteen makes those points both through playwright Margaret Edson’s sharp dialogue, most of which Bearing delivers directly to the crowd, and through her own expressive acting.
Bearing opens the play as a distinguished professor, but soon enough Wintersteen shows us the humiliated patient suffering the indignities of innocuous questions from detached doctors, to the endless pokes and prods of the hospital staff. She delivers biting lines with a withering glare and whimpers her growing despair.
Bearing is so haughty she even chastises her oncologist (Charles Newman) for his misuse of the word “insidious” when he’s describing her cancer.
Doctors don’t get off very easy in the play, and Matthew Collie as Dr. Jason Posner has some comically baffling bedside manners. In a rare moment when Bearing and her not-so-good doctor bond as fellow researchers, she asks why he didn’t become a heart surgeon. He thoughtlessly proclaims, “I always wanted cancer,” meaning not as a disease, but as a field where he could make his mark.
Meg Bartholomay’s simple, yet compassionate Nurse Susie is the sole health care professional to treat Bearing as a human and not a specimen.
Director David Wintersteen makes economic use of Theatre B’s small stage with a handful of moving props, like a wheelchair and hospital bed, to illustrate how Bearing’s hospital stay wears her down.
On an even more visual level, Benjamin Fink’s light design, combined with Carrie Wintersteen’s shaved head and covered eyebrows, make the patient look truly sickly.
One fault with the play is a brief turn into an unfortunate, loud, hospital melodrama toward the end. Still, it’s quickly salvaged by Carrie Wintersteen’s graceful, transcendent final action. If you thought she was brave for shaving her head, stay for the last scene.
Edson did a tremendous job in taking weighty topics and adding enough levity to make the 90-minute play engaging, entertaining and at times even amusing.
There’s a legitimate chance you’ll tear up during the show (I did), but Carrie Wintersteen helps take a plot that could be a Lifetime disease-of-the-week movie and make it a compelling performance about what really matters in life.
If you go
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays through Oct. 18; 2 p.m. matinee Oct. 5
Where: Theatre B, 716 Main Ave., Fargo
Tickets: Tickets are $20 for adults and seniors, $10 for students. (701) 729-8880. www.theatreb.org