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Wit & Two Days of Grace at Middleham

Wednesday, May 17 2000
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Wit
Margaret Edson's script is a cancer play. Despite the Pulitzer and the hype, this show has the same masochism, the same manipulation, the same false redemption -- cancer ennobles and improves the protagonist -- as every other cancer play or movie. This time out, the victim is Donne scholar Vivian Bearing (Judith Light), who lives a cloistered, friendless life. Having devoted herself to John Donne's poetry, she's never really lived. (She appears to be a virgin, with no romantic history.) A cold, intellectually proud woman who doesn't laugh -- intellectual pride always equals haughtiness in writing of this ilk -- Bearing accepts the diagnosis and recommended course of treatment stoically. There are no second opinions or consultations; Vivian just does her penance. Her doctors, especially Dr. Posner (Daniel Sarnelli), a former student of hers, exhibit the same disregard for her feelings she's always shown for her students. Only her nurse Susie (Lisa Tharps) befriends and comforts her. Points are made about complexity and simplicity (Bearing gives a pretty good lecture on Donne's "Holy Sonnet V"), and near the end of the play, Vivian's one visitor, her mentor (Diane Kagan), reads Margaret Wise Brown's Runaway Bunny to her. In a moment just prior, Vivian laughs at Susie's ignorance of the word "soporific," but explains the mistake to Susie, who laughs with and thanks her. Vivian replies, "I'm a teacher." At long last she truly is, we're meant to think. Light is very good as Bearing (except in a flashback where she's 5 years old -- incredibly, she speaks baby talk, something director Derek Anson Jones should have squelched), and it's almost impossible not to be moved by this portrait of a woman being tortured, but you may feel as if it's you on the rack. The intellectual veneer applied to this hackneyed genre changes nothing -- this is a play about a disease, and not about a human being.

Through May 28 at the Curran Theater, 445 Geary (between Mason and Taylor), S.F. Admission is $32.50-58; call 551-2000.
--Joe Mader

Two Days of Grace at Middleham
First Scene's production of Two Days of Grace at Middleham, by Toni Press-Coffman, would be a promising amateur effort of the kind that First Scene normally workshops -- the company is a local lab for playwrights -- except that Press-Coffman is no amateur. She's written 20 plays, including Touch, seen at this year's Humana Festival. Her script wonders what might happen if Richard III, villain in Shakespeare and most of English posterity, could see what people were saying about him; poor Richard wasn't as evil (or as crippled) as Shakespeare has suggested, so Press-Coffman presents him as an upright Prince Valiant-like figure lured half-willingly into murderous intrigues for the crown. He marries, becomes king, but now and then sees ghosts of American and British tourists wandering his ruined Middleham Castle 500 years in the future. The time-warp premise is interesting enough to carry the first half, although Press-Coffman indulges in amateurish little plot coincidences; but the second act is too long, and the gay romance doesn't work at all. Jonathan Ingbretson does his best with Richard, Megan Towle plays a sweet Lady Anne, and Matt Goff is good in most of his roles. But "grace" is just what Two Days lacks.

At the Theater Rhino Studio, 2926 16th St.(between Mission and South Van Ness), through May 27. Admission is $15-18; call 861-5079.
--Michael Scott Moore

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