DEATH BE NOT PROUD: “Wit” comes to Rochester Civic Theatre

When Vivian Bearing, an uncompromising professor of seventeenth-century literature, is diagnosed with stage-four metastatic ovarian cancer, she responds with her indomitable wit. 

Margaret Edson’s Pulitzer-winning play “Wit” has been performed at theatres and hospitals nationwide, including Abbott Northwestern Hospital, where Executive Director of the Rochester Civic Theatre Gregory Stavrou worked with Edson during this staged reading of the show. Stavrou hopes that the Rochester community finds this full production enjoyable and an opportunity to increase dialogue about caring for those with life-threatening illnesses. 

Science vs. Medicine 

As artistic director for the Virginia Piper Cancer Institute in the 1990s, Stavrou experienced first-hand the need for kindness in the midst of cancer treatment. In this time of remarkable life-saving innovations, Stavrou says it is crucial for medical professionals to remember why they do this. Though science is undoubtedly important, medicine should respond to the needs of the whole person, not simply their illness.


The show illuminates this by paralleling science and Vivian’s wit. As we see Vivian longing for more than wit, we see medicine longing for more than science.

The Importance of Wit

Bearing’s love of words is always evident. As Stavrou explains, “She takes these words which she understands so well and is very good at dissecting and explaining how they work; this gives her a sense of control and authority. When she has to admit that control is an illusion, her relationship to the words changes dramatically.” 

Stavrou stresses the role of wit and kindness in this show, saying, “The lead characters, all of them, are consummate professionals; these are people of great intellect, indeed great wit. But when we face the great challenges of life, what is the role of that wit in our ability to deal lovingly, wholesomely, gently with ourselves? Ultimately, wit is important, but not enough. And yet, through our wit, we’re able to begin the process of assigning meaning to experience…and if one can assign meaning to experience, suffering is mitigated.”

Performances for “Wit” are October 23-24, 29-30 and November 6-8 at 7 p.m. 

Rochester Civic Theatre’s “Women on Wednesdays” will address issues found in “Wit” on October 14 and November 11 at 5:30 p.m. Admission is free, but reservations are required. The Civic is also hosting post-play dialogue with various medical professionals, and an art exhibit showcasing the journey through cancer. 

Grace Murray is a writing student at Concordia College hoping to someday be as witty as Vivian Bearing.