NC Theatre had two reasons to be apprehensive last Thursday. Lead actor Judy McLane quit its production of Wit the day before opening ("personal reasons," according to a press release; "vocal problems" was the word on stage Saturday night), and she had no understudy. Making matters worse, the company had already invited Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Margaret Edson—an erudite, sharply analytical viewer of her own work—to speak about the local production after Saturday night's performance.
Yes, this all could have ended very poorly.
Fortunately, the company was able to find Kate Goehring, a Connecticut-based actor who played the lead in Triad Stage's production in Greensboro last year. Goehring managed to arrange a leave from her day job, fly down, run lines, and assume the role of Vivian Bearing, cancer patient and English scholar—all on roughly twenty-four hours' notice. But any concept that acclaimed guest director Kate Galvin might have developed about Bearing, who speaks nine-tenths of the play's lines, had to be largely jettisoned as cast and crew struggled to reblock the show in the course of a single day. The ensemble's chemistry and rhythm also had to be rebuilt from scratch.
Still, an intrepid Goehring gave a crisp and nuanced portrait of a self-aggrandizing academic on Saturday night. Briefing us on her advanced ovarian cancer in a manner befitting a senior lecturer before a group of undependable undergraduates, Bearing calmly states, "I know all about life and death. I am, after all, a scholar of Donne's Holy Sonnets, which explore mortality in greater depth than any other body of work in the English language."
Edson tests that thesis—actually, rips it to shreds—over the next ninety minutes. The intellectual and emotional barricades Bearing has hidden behind all her life are disassembled, gradually or abruptly, by the spread of her cancer and her interactions with nurse Susie Monahan (a strong, empathetic Daisy Eagan) and a former mentor played with compassion by Jo Ann Cunningham. When Bearing finally experiences human contact through the touch of the nurse, Goehring clearly registers it as a revelation.
We'd quibble with Logan James Hall's one-note take on Posner, a clinician more interested in medical research than the people it might benefit. And the climactic physical conflict between Monahan and Posner and an emergency team mistakenly sent to resuscitate Bearing was less than convincing.
But in all, the performance's strengths were able to mask the chaos behind the curtain. Had an understudy been employed, would the work have been even stronger? It's a question worth considering for future productions that meet unexpected obstacles, at NC Theatre and elsewhere.
This article appeared in print with the headline "At Wit's End"