This production was scheduled November 11, 17 & 19, 2023.
‘Tis the season for great times, good cheer, and gratitude.
While the attention is usually on the merrymaking, being thankful for what we have—and what we have experienced throughout the year—must count just as meaningfully.
Nothing presented on local stages during 2023 brings this idea more clearly into focus than a drama presented in readers theatre style this month by Santa Maria Civic Theatre.
Wit won the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and was made into a film in 2001 starring Emma Thompson and directed by Mike Nichols. It is a simple but utterly complex piece. And this production in Santa Maria, which ran for three shows only, ending November 19, was just as unadorned and as richly provocative, and surprisingly very funny.
That this gem of a show resonated profoundly with its audience is thanks to Jessie Villaseñor’s restrained and efficient direction, and a smart and gifted cast led by the awe-inspiring Jill Turnbow as Vivian Bearing, a “tough” 50-year-old facing terminal cancer (and perhaps more relevant, the eight months of treatment trying to keep it at bay). Her reactions to the often-asked and usually beside-the-point question “How are you feeling today?” and her new vocabulary that has “taken a turn to the Anglo-Saxon” are priceless. When her voice becomes strained after eight rounds of chemotherapy you believe her anger and her fear when she says her body feels like a “specimen jar” or a “dust jacket” containing all those ever-growing cancerous cells.
Readers theatre can often seem static, but there was just enough action here to augment the acerbic and, yes, witty dialogue (helped along with stage directions inserted by narrator Bobbi Thompson). Sometimes surprising, but very telling, movements accentuated the narrative, such as the other characters up and moving their chairs in unison from the edges of the stage to its center, surrounding Vivian at a fitting first act juncture.
Playing various roles, the cast members surrounding Turnbow were uniformly present in each moment, creating interactions that were truthful and always telling. Ed Cardoza, Daniel Mariscal, and Yvonne Duran as medical personnel were skillful and convincing, taking time to fill out their characters with personality (in some cases even when their characters lacked humility or even simple humanity). Sarah Ruth Smith, Debora Schwartz, and David Smith—always reliable and always wholeheartedly engaged—rounded out the cast.
Although the stage was a seriously black box and the set a few chairs and a hospital bed, the show used effective lighting and sound (thanks to technician John Shade) to clarify the scenes, especially when Vivian’s memories come to the surface. Stage manager Valerie Pallai kept everything running smoothly, especially in the chaotic final scene.
Cast members donned costume pieces as needed to underscore their various roles as doctors and hospital technicians. Vivian is from the start swaddled appropriately in hospital garb, but tellingly and triumphantly casts it aside at the inevitable conclusion of the play.
While the conclusion of this drama was perhaps foregone, the conclusions that we take away from such a touching exploration of the human condition are not. We can decide to party on, as life is short; we can examine our priorities and conclude that changes may be in order; we can realize that to be grateful for what we have, and expressing that appreciation to those responsible, is a meaningful act.
With that in mind, thank you to Santa Maria Civic Theatre for bringing Wit to Central Coast audiences. Thank you to all the companies in the region who create magic onstage throughout the year. And thank you to the audiences who keep these troupes, amateur and professional, alive.