Raleigh Little Theatre opened the latest show of their 70th season last Friday with Wit, the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Margaret Edson. It is Ms. Edson’s first play, and thus far, her only produced one. She drew on her experiences as a volunteer in the oncology unit in a local hospital to write the work, creating for us the stern but witty Dr. Vivian Bearing, who teaches college-level English Literature, generally 17th Century English Poetry, and specifically the Holy Sonnets of Poet John Donne. Using her immense knowledge of the subject, she uses Donne’s renowned “Wit” as a weapon against her cancer. It does not allow her to beat the demon we learn in the first few minutes of the play that she will die but it does sustain her through not only the ravages of the disease but also the ravages of the treatment. Dr. Bearing becomes the guinea pig for an aggressive treatment that requires her to be hospitalized, given debilitating chemotherapy, and used as “research” for the doctors and students of the hospital.

Raleigh Little Theatre brings this work to its main stage using only a cast of nine; the original cast ran to twenty-two. Director Haskell Fitz-Simons uses an ensemble of four to make up the difference: students of medicine, students of poetry, and students of life-changing events. But his master-stroke in bringing together a cast to perform this work is his selection of the main character, Dr. Bearing, as Mary Rowland, a Raleigh native and a star attraction across the Triangle. Because the work is so infinitely and intrinsically woven around Vivian, Mary Rowland may very well be the only actress on Raleigh’s community-theater roster who could successfully pull off this role which, with absolute conviction, she does.

In addition to Rowland and the ensemble, four other characters make up the rest of the cast: Dr. Bearing’s own instructor, E. M. Ashford, is performed by Patsy Clarke, who brilliantly portrays her character’s own intractability when it comes to academic perfection, and her care and fondness for her most brilliant pupil. Bearing’s physician, Dr. Harvey Kelekian, is played by veteran Triangle actor Fred Corlett; as a man of science and research, Kelekian is far from having any kind of a bedside manner. While he can and does make a good cheerleader for Bearing, he also distances himself from the patient, who becomes far more important to him as a piece of research than as a terminal patient. Going Kelekian one further is the up-and-coming Dr. Jason Posner, recreated by Kevin Ferguson. Ferguson gives Posner a human element in one scene, where he reminds Dr. Bearing he took her class, and then proceeds to give her a pelvic examination. While comedic, the scene shows clearly the humiliation and insensitivity doctors can inflict upon their patients. Conversely, Nurse Susie Monahan, played by Triangle newcomer Diane Monson, is compassionate, caring, attentive, and gives Dr. Bearing the out of DNR: “Do Not Resuscitate.” Monahan is the human element in a hospital teeming with those more interested in their careers than their cases.

The four-member ensemble is Corey Banks, Shelley Habetz, Mary Misertino, and Kerry Sullivan. These four work together to create the hospital’s crash cart team; the heartless technicians Dr. Bearing encounters, and the students of 17th century poetry under Dr. Bearing’s stern eye. Their support is crucial and they deliver, creating multiple characters adroitly.

But without Dr. Bearing there would be no play, and in this case, it is safe to say that without Mary Rowland, the same holds true. Rowland embraces Vivian Bearing, learning her disease and her reactions to it. She is also versed, if you will, in Donne’s Holy Sonnets, using them to sustain her in this long and lonely trip to death. Rowland makes the sacrifice of giving up her crowning glory for the role, shaving her head to reflect the hair loss always evident with chemo-therapy; and wearing a red baseball cap and double hospital gown like she were dressed for a campus tea rather than a hospital stay. Rowland knows Bearing’s separateness, arrogance, and tenacity; but she also knows and lets us know that even Dr. Bearing has a human side, and the need for social connection. That she can cling to it so desperately when it is offered by Nurse Monahan is only one of the reasons that Rowland may be the only local actress that can play her.

Many might look at this play as an indictment of the medical community; others may find it too funny for such a serious topic; watching such a debilitating deterioration of a human being has been described as “not for the squeamish;” and Dr. Bearing herself is not the easiest person to get close to. This play has been described as the least “viewer-friendly” of all the Pulitzer winners. But this production at Raleigh Little Theatre negates all of the above as perhaps true but nevertheless immaterial, because it is so astutely put together, by both cast and crew. If you know a cancer patient or, even more importantly, if you are or have been a cancer patient, you owe it to yourself to see this production. It will present you with insights so relevant to your situation that you will be astounded.

Raleigh Little Theatre presents Wit Thursday-Saturday, Feb. 16-18 and 23-25, at 8 p.m.; and Sunday, Feb. 19 and 26, at 3 p.m. in RLT’s Cantey V. Sutton Theatre, 301 Pogue St., Raleigh, North Carolina. $15 Thursdays and Sundays ($12 students and seniors), $18 Fridays, and $20 Saturdays, except $10 Feb. 22nd for the Rex Healthcare Cancer Center Angel Fund Benefit. 919/821-3111 or etix via the presenter’s site. Note: All performances are wheelchair accessible. Raleigh Little Theatre: http://www.raleighlittletheatre.org/wit.htm [inactive 4/06]. Internet Movie Database (TV movie): http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0243664/.