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"Wit" to teach empathy through cancer patient's journey

Weber State Wit Photo #3 Shawnee Johnson at Vivian Bearing and Flo Bravo...
Shawnee Johnson (left) plays English Professor Vivian Bearing who has been diagnosed with stage four cervical cancer. Flo Bravo (right) plays Susie Monahan, Vivian’s primary nurse. (Photo credit: Lindquist College of Arts and Humanities)

As students, we come in contact with dozens of people every day. Professors. Fellow students. The guy who makes your coffee. Family. The parking attendant. Friends. Sometimes it’s much easier to be rude, harsh and condescending to those we interact with. While being rude is easier, what affect could being kind have?

Opening Nov. 7, “Wit” is a one-act play about one woman’s journey, from diagnosis to death, with cancer and the lessons she learned about kindness and empathy along the way.

Vivian Bearing is a professor of metaphysical poetry, specializing in John Donne’s poetry. As a professor, she is known for her demanding teaching methods. Bearing never married, has no children and has no friends.  After a visit with her doctor, Bearing is diagnosed with stage-four metastatic cervical cancer.

After several months in a medical research hospital, Bearing begins to recognize her own cold pursuit of knowledge in some of the doctors and nurses around her. She realizes that while gaining knowledge is wonderful, showing kindness is more important. The play ends with Bearing’s death.

“It sounds really dark, and it is because you’re watching someone die on stage, but there’s a lot of humor,” said Tracy Callahan, director of “Wit” and theater professor at Weber State. “It takes you on her journey of understanding how she has let her life focus on too much of one thing.”

Callahan said “Wit” was on her short list when picking plays for the theater department’s current season. When she found out that several faculty members were conducting research about empathy by using the book and movie forms of “Wit,” Callahan knew she wanted to help her fellow professors by producing the show on stage.

“I like the theater that makes us think about the choices that we make, maybe people in our own lives who are going through this and what we can do to help them,” Callahan said. “They’ll listen because of the way that this woman, in the last eight months, really learns something from her cancer, from having gone through this and I find that very rewarding in and of itself”

Kaylee Orr, junior in theater education and musical theater and dramaturge for “Wit,” said that her favorite part of this production has been watching the play come to life. As dramaturge, Orr has become an expert on all things “Wit,” even maintaining a blog for the production.

“I read the play so many times and I researched all the references and learned about all of the medical references,” Orr said. “Plays were written to be seen. They weren’t written to be research or talked about or read, they were meant to be seen.”

Shawnee K. Johnson plays Vivian Bearing. Johnson said she has a special connection to Bearing because Johnson has recently watched her mother go through a similar battle with cancer. Unlike Bearing, Johnson’s mother has survived her battle with cancer.

Johnson said she hopes audience members experience a wide range of emotions because of “Wit,” but she especially hopes students come and enjoy the humor in the play.

“You hear ‘oh I’m going to see a play about a woman who has cancer and she’s going to die’ and that’s really not something that sounds appealing but it’s so funny,” Johnson said.

Johnson said that she hopes students realize the gravity of their actions, especially negative ones towards others and know that cynicism isn’t something worth working for.

“We live in a world that is so hard,” Johnson said. “People get so angry all the time and they walk around grumpy. Especially college students. We’re very cynical and bitter. I think it’s a millennial thing. It’s like a thing of our generation to be cynical . . . Everyone is a person and they deserve to be treated with respect regardless of how they treat you.”

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