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Tom Titus -- Theater

March 29, 2001

Theatergoers who regularly frequent South Coast Repertory and are

plugged into HBO at home have the opportunity of seeing how a play born

on SCR's Second Stage has evolved into a gripping viewing experience with

world-class talent.

On Saturday, the pay cable TV channel presented its first airing of

"Wit" by Margaret Edson, which first saw the light of day at SCR in

1995. It's the story of a cold, demanding college professor who's now

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being treated for ovarian cancer by one of her former students -- and

aching for the touch of humanity she habitually denied those in her

class on 17th century poetry.

In the local world premiere, Megan Cole delivered a bravura

performance as Dr. Vivian Bearing, taking playgoers through the painful

step-by-step process of treatment a patient must endure. Subsequent

stagings in New York with Kathleen Chalfant and Judith Light brought the

play the Pulitzer Prize for drama.

In the HBO production, the central role falls to renowned actress Emma

Thompson, whose superlative portrayal has "Emmy" written all over it.

Thompson delivers the performance of her distinguished career as she

endures the pain and humiliation of the insidious disease, while waxing

ironic to the end.

It's not an easy show to watch. Particularly for me, since less than

a year ago a close friend succumbed to the same disease. But it's

brilliantly laid out by director Mike Nichols who, with Thompson,

"refashioned the script" for the HBO version.

The televised production is dotted with notable names and faces --

Christopher Lloyd plays it straight for possibly the only time in his

career as Thompson's primary doctor and playwright Harold Pinter has a

brief, undemanding stint as her father.

But the strongest support comes from Jonathan M. Woodward as the

ex-student and research fellow -- a role endowed with far more humanity

than Edson's original script offered -- and Audra McDonald as a caring

and supportive nurse. Eileen Atkins' tender cameo as Thompson's former

mentor reading her a bedtime story as she lies dying is priceless.

SCR's Jerry Patch represented the Costa Mesa company at a recent New

York seminar hosted for those who have contributed to the development of

"Wit," and he remarked that this play, a first effort from schoolteacher

Edson, "is literally changing the way we treat cancer in hospitals."

The HBO treatment is "very faithful to the text of the play," Patch

noted, though it has lost much of the incidental humor accorded the

original.

If you have HBO -- or know someone who does and can tape it for you

-- don't fail to experience this compelling and intellectually

challenging drama. Look for "Wit" to be in the forefront when the

television industry honors its own -- and re-christens its awards the

"Emmas."

* TOM TITUS writes about and reviews local theater for the Daily

Pilot. His stories appear Thursdays and Saturdays.

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