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'The Wisdom of Wit'

Megan Cole remembers the first time she saw the script for Margaret Edson's play "Wit." It was more than 20 years ago at South Coast Repertory Theatre in Costa Mesa, Calif., where Cole was an actor.

"I read the first page and said, 'Oh, my God,' " she says.

The play, a searing portrait of a brilliant woman facing her death, would strike a lot of people that way. Edson was a schoolteacher, not a professional playwright. She had been inspired to write "Wit," also known as "W;t," after working at the National Institutes of Health, and she had submitted the play on speculation.

Cole played Vivian Bearing, the play's intellectual English professor with ovarian cancer, in a staged reading in 1994, and in the play's world premiere in 1995 at South Coast Rep. Other productions quickly followed, and the play won a 1999 Pulitzer and other prizes and was made into a movie with Emma Thompson.

About the time the Oregon Shakespeare Festival mounted a production of the play in 2000, Cole was beginning the work that would lead to the play's adaptation into a theatrical program/discussion called "The Wisdom of 'Wit'," which she would go on to present to doctors, nurses, cancer patients and others around the nation. In the presentation, Cole uses the play as the starting point for discussions about finding meaning in life while facing serious illness and/or death. 

Cole will present the program at 2 p.m. and again at 7 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 26, at the Smullin Center at Asante Rogue Regional Medical Center, 2825 E. Barnett Road, Medford. Suggested donation is $10. For more on COHO's public forums, visit http://cohoroguevalley.org.

The program is the second in an ongoing series called "Facing Mortality: The Elephant in the Room," presented by Choosing Options, Honoring Options, a group with the goal of facilitating end-of-life conversations in the community. It's described as a dramatized lecture, but Cole says it's "much more dramatized than lecture-ish."

The play takes place in the final hours of the life of Vivian, who at times speaks directly to the audience about her life and illness. She's been a formidable professor who demanded uncompromising intellectual rigor from her students. Now dying of fourth-stage ovarian cancer ("there is no stage five"), she reflects on her life and encounters doctors interested in her as a research subject.

The play has sometimes been criticized as being "anti-doctor."

"Oh, no," Cole says. "I used to do a whole lecture on why it was not doctor-bashing. She (Edson) said it's not about doctors. It's about the failure of abstract intelligence."

In the play, Vivian comes to realize that Dr. Harvey Kelekian, head of oncology, and a young clinical fellow, Dr. Jason Posner, are more interested in her as a subject than as a person, and decides for the first time in her life she'd prefer kindness to intellect.

"She discovers she's like both her doctor and Jason," Cole says. "They're two peas in a pod."

Cole says the story is built of "snatches of memories" as seen through Vivian's eyes.

"You could tell the same story through doctors' eyes," she says. "There's nothing medical people are guilty of that Vivian isn't guilty of."

Cole, who acted at OSF in the early 1970s, in the 1983 season and in 1992 and 1993, now lives in Manzanita near Cannon Beach. She remembers sitting on the rocks at the coast after the run of "Wit," marveling at how deeply the play hit people. She wondered how she could continue to be involved in the play in a way that wouldn't require regional theaters doing productions of it year after year, a prospect that seemed unlikely. She went to Houston in 2000 to discuss the play's insights with cancer specialists in that city's huge medical community.

"That's when my life began to change," she says. "I learned so much."

In the early 2000s she developed a course for young doctors based on the play's insights. The goal was essentially to teach heath professionals to see the person inside the patient. Eventually that took the form of a 55-minute version of Edson's play in which Cole plays all the characters. In the performance, she steps out of character at key moments for discussions with audience members on what's going on in the drama. A 30-minute discussion follows the performance.

She's performed the work, to which she has the legal rights, at Johns Hopkins, Mayo Clinic, Oregon Health & Science University and many other hospitals around the country.

"Wit" is also known as "W;t," referring to the use of a semicolon versus a comma in one of John Donne's "Holy Sonnets." The so-called Metaphysical Poets of 17th-century England were known for their wit and for use of the "metaphysical conceit," a far-fetched comparison such as Donne's likening of the soul to a drop of dew. But Donne also wrote about suffering, death and the importance of knowing oneself.

In the play, Vivian's journey takes her from a belief in the power of pure intellect, as represented for her by the study of Donne's poetry, to the simple, human compassion of another character, Nurse Susie. In the end, Vivian must realize that her intellectual armor won't save her, and she puts aside Donne for a reading of Margaret Wise Brown's classic children's story "The Runaway Bunny."

"Anyone who's in Vivian's state is in a state of great imbalance," Cole says. "I believe in the power of experience, and in the power of theater. I hope it provokes a profound experiential response. Then we talk about it."

Reach Medford freelance writer Bill Varble at bill.varble@gmail.com.

Actress Megan Cole will give a solo dramatic presentation of 'Wit,' about a brilliant scholar whose battle against ovarian cancer brings her to a new understanding of what it means to be human, during the next COHO forum Feb. 26. Photo courtesy Megan Cole