When Megan Cole lifted the flute away from her lips and segued immediately into a powerful recitation of John Donne, I knew I had misrepresented her performance, The Wisdom of Wit, by inviting my friend to come to a health humanities ‘lecture’ with me.
Ms. Cole, current artist-in-residence at UNC School of Nursing, worked with the playwright Margaret Edson in the mid-90’s to develop the protagonist of her Pulitzer-Prize-winning play, Wit. Her residency this week includes five days of acting workshops, and a second performance on Thursday, Scenes from the Faraway Nearby, which deals with end-of-life decision-making.
The Wisdom of Wit, which Ms. Cole developed as an educational tool for healthcare professionals, blends didactic analysis with performed excerpts from the play. Our protagonist is Vivian Bearing, a brilliant professor of 17th century English metaphysical poetry, who is diagnosed with Stage IV ovarian cancer. Passionate in her love of her subject, though brittle and arrogant, her personality is not dissimilar from that of her doctors. Knowingly or unknowingly, they appeal to her love of knowledge and sense of identity when they persuade her to enroll in an experimental course of chemotherapy. “Are you prepared to be very tough?” asks the attending doctor. “You needn’t worry,” is her dry response.
The rest of the characters are familiar hospital types: the Oncology Research Fellow who views bedside manner as a hand-holding waste of time, the salt-of-the-earth nurse who comforts Vivian in her pain. Ms. Cole played each character with excellence by transforming her voice, tone, and carriage.
As the experimental chemotherapy wears away at Vivian, she becomes a raging Lady Lear, her former power lost, a medical subject. “What we have come to think of as me,” she says, “is, in fact, just the specimen jar.” The play ends with her death and a mistakenly-called Code Blue. A brief final battle for her body, and whether or not to keep it alive, is fought between the nurse–“She’s DNR!”–and the Fellow–“She’s Research!” In the midst of this, Vivian rises from the bed, sheds her IVs, EKG leads, hospital bracelet, and reaches up and out towards a light. Are these the sensations produced by her hypoxic brain? Is she reaching towards heaven? In either case, the sense is redemptive and transformative: a culmination.
Ms. Cole ended as she began, reciting Death be not proud and playing the flute. She noted that the landscape of end-of-life care had changed in the years since she worked with Margaret Edson; that palliative care, as a relatively young medical specialty, has been able to bring great comfort and meaning to those who are dying. “The play,” she said, quoting the playwright, “is about Love and Knowledge, and the balance between the two.” Ms. Cole’s performance opened the door to this complicated play, full of rigorous textual analysis and discussions of nephrotoxicity, and showed a room of practitioners and students how to negotiate that balance.