Breaking the Fourth Wall with 'W;t' at Redhouse

Laura Austin, as Dr. Vivian Bearing, and the cast of 'W;t.' Photo: Jessie Dobrzynski W;t Who Redhouse Arts Center Where 201 S. West St. Syracuse When Through Feb. 2 Tickets $15-25; $10 for students Review by Christina Riley

Gripping monologues, poignant turns of phrases, erudite speeches and a heartfelt, real life struggle form the essence of Wit, the Pulitzer Prize-winning, one-act play. However, these aspects are dourly overshadowed in the production at Redhouse.

The play by Margaret Edson tells the story of a 50-year-old literature professor, Dr. Vivian Bearing, who is dying from stage four ovarian cancer. Edson creatively takes us on a journey depicting Vivian’s cancer treatment. By interweaving the metaphysical, eloquent poetry of John Donne and constantly breaking the fourth wall, Edson portrays Vivian’s last days. The script is a masterful piece of art that is worthy of being a Pulitzer and Tony Award-winning play. However, that is sadly negated by the lacking performances from the ensemble of nine.

Things went amiss during the opening night performance: props broke, fell apart and were stuck; actors stumbled over their lines again, again and yet again.

Laura Austin, playing Vivian, never fully engaged the audience in her character’s struggle with death and introspective analysis of her life. Even though she physically fit the role with her shaved head and constantly broke the fourth wall, Austin’s performance was cursory at best and never fully convinced the audience of the pain and anguish Vivian was experiencing. This is due in part to Austin missing and faltering over lines several times during her most affecting, emphatic monologues, the ones that were to draw at the heartstrings of the audience. Even when reading a Donne poem projected on a backdrop, Austin’s recitation blatantly omitted and ad-libbed words that weren’t there.

Laura Austin and Bianafer Dabu in 'W;t.' Photo: Jessie Dobrzynski

The most authentic and touching moments come from Binaifer Dabu who plays Vivian’s English professor. Granted, Dabu’s stage time is short but her performance lends credibility to the overall production.

To the production’s credit, Tim Brown, scenic designer, did make good use of Redhouse’s intimate performance space. Having worked on previous Redhouse productions, Brown successfully utilized the stage to tell Edson’s story in a realistic yet minimal set.

Perhaps opening night jitters were to blame for the subpar performance. Regardless, Edson’s brilliantly scripted piece still shines through the lackluster performance. As Vivian’s character states, “Brevity is the soul of wit,” however, for the soul of this production brevity is the least of its issues.