The theatre is a place for us to reflect on our lives, whether it presents a comedic representation of mundane situations, scathing satirical observations about the current society, or farcical, musical fantasies. The Justice Theater Project in Raleigh strives to probe deeper, not only presenting real-world issues in a theatrical light, but “to use the performing arts as a way to call to the fore of public attention the needs of the poor, the marginalized, and the oppressed.” Artistic Director Deb Royals chose to focus on the American healthcare system during the 2013-2014 season, entitled “We Are One Body,” with One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Wit, and Grey Gardens.

The 1999 Pulitzer Prize-winning Wit addresses not only the experience of chemotherapy, but “life” – and “how we live that life with grace and purpose.” The play follows college professor Vivian Bearing, played by Rasool Jahan, a renowned specialist in John Donne poetry who is undergoing an aggressive eight-week treatment for ovarian cancer. Bearing hypothesizes about the meaning of life, of death, of spiritual redemption, underpinned by Donne’s “Death Be Not Proud,” although we start to realize that is not the underlying message of the play itself (but I’ll maintain a spoiler-free review!).

Wit is being performed at St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church in Clare Hall, which is a comfortable and intimate fellowship hall that is being utilized to its full extent with stage lighting, entrances from the doors to the hall as well as backstage, and walls that are outfitted with white sheer drapes. The stage is white, compartmentalized in three sections behind white hospital room curtains, giving the performance space an otherworldly feel. However, the play is visceral, showing an all-too-real representation of Vivian’s time in and out of the hospital.

This juxtaposition of heavenly and mortal sets the tone for the rest of the play; Margaret Edson’s writing contrasts the metaphysical and the clinical, dignity and awkwardness, uncompromising and “barfing my brains out,” wit and truth. Jahan was sardonic, entertaining, and often hard to watch, wringing out a performance that was impossible to award the standing ovation it truly deserved, simply because the audience was too moved, too suspended by the simplistic and uplifting ending, to clap. The subtle nudges toward real meaning are tucked neatly between in-depth metaphysical posturing, such that the real discussion becomes whether the meaning of life is really worth exploring, or if the real meaning of life is simply kindness.

 Lynne Meadow, artistic director of the Manhattan Theater Club during a recent production of Wit, who was undergoing treatment for cancer in the ‘90’s and initially passed over the play, said in a New York Times article that despite – or perhaps because of – her experience with cancer, Wit is “so emotionally accessible as well as intellectually fulfilling.” Supporting characters like Susie Monahan, RN (Page Purgar), and Professor Evelyn Ashford (Kathy Norris) draw out the humanity of the story and round out the rough parts of Bearing’s treatment. Purgar and Norris played completely different characters, but their contributions were equally compassionate. Meanwhile, less lovable Jason Posner, MD (Byron Jennings) had to deliver a “cancer is awesome” monologue that, although hard to hear, was honest and illuminated the medical professional’s perspective on the disease.

John Honeycutt played both Harvey Kelekian, MD and Vivian’s father, successfully representing two father figures in her life who approach her life differently, one with an aggressive treatment to protect her that may be only for his own research gain, and one who encourages her to be self-sufficient and sound out words at the beginning of what is to become her English career. Ensemble cast Lorelei Mellon, Caroline Millington, and Victor Rivera played lab technicians, students, and resident doctors, changing roles swiftly and succinctly. Although their characters were shallower, they satirized each stage in Vivian’s life with stylized behaviors that convincingly fulfilled Vivian’s narrated descriptions.

Royals made sure to announce at the beginning of the performance that Olivia Lawrence from Cornucopia Cancer Support Center would be available after the show and was free to talk and offer support. Other professionals will be available at the end of each night of this emotionally charged show. Issues brought up in the play include not only cancer, but also experimental treatment, loneliness and depression, and end of life issues, which are hard to discuss when you haven’t just watched an eight-month representation of someone’s life as they are being taken down by cancer and chemo.

The play borders on gratuitous in its presentation of chemotherapy, as Jahan shakes with chill, cries with pain, and shouts for life. However, the resulting product is a true-to-life experience used to reflect on these issues we are not faced with every day, to promote awareness of the situations cancer patients and their families face. Too many of us have been and will be affected by cancer in some way or other, and although Edson’s play hits uncomfortably close to home, that is the point. As The Justice Theater Project invites, let us “begin the conversation.”

 “Living with Cancer” and “Access to Care” pre-show panel discussions will take place at 7:00 PM on February 8 and 15, respectively. To further underscore its slogan, “Art Inspiring Change,” The Project is offering a Cancer Resource Fair during the closing weekend of the show, which will feature Cancer Companions, American Cancer Society, Cornucopia Cancer Support Center, Susan G. Komen, Stephen Ministry, Navigator, Fight Like Paxton, Livestrong YMCA, and Lovely Lady.

Wit continues through Sunday, February 23. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.

Please note:  Date in sentence immediately above has been corrected.  2/11/14