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[whitespace] Actors True Stories: Actresses Linda Hoy (left) and Julia Brothers, in San Jose Stage Company's 'W;t,' reveal a drama all too familiar to cancer victims and their families.

Wit and Wisdom

Behind the scenes of San Jose Stage Company's most important work to date, 'W;t,' Margaret Edson's Pulitzer Prize-winning play

By Genevieve Roja

THE SEMICOLON SEEMS TO SAY everything. In an old edition I have of Grammar Smart: A Guide to Perfect Usage, by the Princeton Review, the authors explain: "For some reason the semicolon is the most feared punctuation mark; it seems to inspire loss of confidence even in accomplished writers." The rules are simple, it says. Use it to link two independent clauses; use it to separate elements in a long laundry list, or if the elements themselves have commas in them. It reminds the reader that semicolons belong outside quotation marks.

With that in mind, it may make sense to place the semicolon between the letters W and T, as in the title of W;t, Margaret Edson's Pulitzer Prize-winning dramatic play which will open January 27 at the San Jose Stage Company. The play is a study in independent clauses and independent states. The lead character, Vivian Bearing, Ph.D. (Julia Brothers), is a professor and resident expert of John Donne's metaphysical poems. Arrogant and stuffy, she is feared by her students. She chastises their ignorance with exploratory questions and term papers and mocks their lollygagging lifestyles. Then, the other independent clause sneaks into her life: she has Stage IV metastatic ovarian cancer, which she perceives as a gross inconvenience. "My work, my students, my cancer-free life--how dare it intrude now?" she seems to ask at every turn. She enters the hospital on an in-patient basis until she can no longer care for herself. During the first months of an eight-month cycle of chemotherapy, no family, no friends come to visit her, save for one. Bearing's cockiness has surrendered to cancer. Imminent death has given way to a new kind of wit.

"Hi, how are you feeling today?" asks Vivian in the play's opening line. "Hi. How are you feeling today?"

She utters the sentence with complete disdain, evidenced by the scowl hiding beneath a cherry-colored baseball hat. She tells the audience she has been asked this question while throwing up in a pan, as she is injected with morphine.

"It is not my intention to give away the plot," Vivian says in the first few lines of her opening soliloquy, "but I die at the end."

"Good! That was better," barks W;t's director, Ken Kelleher, who is sitting a few rows up from center stage. It is 10:30am on Sunday; the company is 14 days from W;t's official opening. The Stage's latest rendition is the first Bay Area production since the national tour concluded its run last spring. Kelleher, Brothers, stage manager Marley Morris and her assistant, Susan Melcher, are the first ones in the theater. Brothers, polishing certain scenes, growls and cries with invisible doctors and nurses. She yanks at the IV going through the hospital nightgown she wears over her street clothes.

"I, I, fuck, fuck. Line?" she asks the stage manager's assistant. The assistant gives her the elusive line.

"Fuck. I. Eeeeehh."

Everyone laughs at her sound effect, a cross between a yelping goat and a down-the-wrong-tube gargle. She runs the line again, pauses, then takes off her baseball cap. She's bald. She asks if, after delivering her line and removing her cap, that's something too "cheesy." Kelleher tells her to go with it. I'm confused. With no frame of reference, I cannot decipher each scene. It's as if I'm given a novel's plot piece by piece, clue by clue. Brothers breezes through many of the lines, usually correcting herself--"Line?"--and moves on. Even with a script that sags with tongue-twisting medical vernacular, Brothers glides effortlessly between her different marks around the stage. Mark five to six to seven to three. How it all comes together, only the cast and crew know. In an actor's mind, I'm told, everything is logical.

IT IS 11:30am, and I can hear the rest of the gang in the lobby catching up, asking one another how they spent the weekend. I meet Gary S. Martinez, who plays Bearing's chief oncologist, Dr. Kelekian, and Neil Howard, who plays Kelekian's fellow, Dr. Jason Posner. It's already been quite a morning for Martinez, who has just flown in from Reno, the location shoot of an independent movie in which he is starring. W;t is his 16th production for the Stage Company; for Howard, a Bay Area actor whose work encompasses theater works in San Francisco, W;t is his first with the Stage. Both are equally excited to be working with the nine-member cast that includes well-known Bay Area actress Linda Hoy, whom Martinez calls a "real sweetheart."

"Linda Hoy brings a simplicity to this role that is just phenomenal," Martinez says. "She brings realism to her character."

Hoy plays E.M. Ashford, D.Phil., Bearing's professor and, later, mentor. From the beginning, Martinez and Howard say that their characters are far from Hoy's sympathetic sketch. The duo, in my mind, are the medical equivalent of leeches. They find a research guinea pig in Bearing, a patient so advanced in ovarian cancer that she makes the perfect candidate for clinical trials and advanced therapies. Given the emotional subject matter of the play, I ask them if rehearsals become just as emotional for them personally.

"From a character's standpoint, not exactly," Perry says. "It's not so much that he's cold. He's a classic researcher; he wants to beat cancer."

There's an emotional-free barrier between the doctors and Bearing simply because the script calls for a doctor-patient brand of physicality. Of the two, it is Dr. Posner that does the touching and probing for Dr. Kelekian.

"I'm not getting emotionally involved," Martinez says of his character. "In the notes that Ken gave me, it said, 'Don't look at her.' As an actor we're told to share; here, we don't share, we don't connect."

Despite his statement's frankness, the remark rings true. More than just a play about a woman living out her last days, W;t illustrates--often accurately--how insincerely and disjointedly members of the medical profession can treat their patients. Their inability to make eye contact with Bearing closely resembles a real doctor's ability to deliver diagnoses of life-threatening illnesses and death with relative ease. But death is a fact of life that not even Vivian can accept as the cancer eats away at her haughtiness. "Death be not proud," she ponders.

FIFTEEN MINUTES to the nine-member cast and crew's first run-through, lab coats and shoes--not death--are holding everyone's attention. The Stage's costume designer, Goulet Bartholomew, has arrived with taupe clogs, seafoam scrubs and white tennis shoes.

"Try these on," says Bartholomew to Ailene King, who plays a medical technician.

"These are good," King says back to Bartholomew. "What I like about this cast is that there's no attitude. It's a very neat group of actors; there's no sense that smaller parts are less a part of the show."

In a few minutes, I see that the actors play dual roles, as actors and then as stagehands, moving a white screen on wheels, desks, chairs, tables and a hospital bed.

"The support system here is incredible," says Howard, who in addition to the cast has received real-life direction from Fred Pitts, an emergency room technician. "It's so professional; it's a joy to work here."

Both can't say enough about Kelleher, whose directorial works include the Stage's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Macbeth. He has also directed for San Jose Repertory Theatre, Sacramento Theatre Company and Shakespeare at Stinson.

"You generally find that most directors are play-based," says Howard, referring to those that stay close to a script's direction. "He's exactly in the middle. He'll remind you to take it [the scene] yourself, and then the rest of the scene he'll leave it alone. I've had directors where they had no comment at all."

Martinez can agree.

"He brings an intellectuality to the play," he says. "I appreciate the fact that if he doesn't know something, he'll ask. He doesn't BS some actors. He too is challenged."

Suddenly we can hear Brothers shouting at the top of her lungs through the closed doors to the stage. I feel as if I've just heard an ugly domestic argument.

"I know which scene this is," Martinez says.

I search his face for some kind of explanation. Who could be the recipient of Bearing's anger? Soon enough, I know. Opening Act, Scene 1. Brothers emerges from underneath a doorway in the set, which is comprised of large wood wall and window cutouts that appear like frosty, semi-opaque glass.

"Hi," Bearing says, looking directly at me. "How are you feeling today?"

I suddenly get it. All the empty pockets and invisible people in the scenes I watched only an hour before have been filled in with real people, real furniture. I understand why she looks at someone a certain way or takes off her baseball cap. Since it is a run-through, there are naturally lapses in the play. Actors ask for lines; the stage manager stands in for an actor who has called in sick. Once in a while, Kelleher asks an actor if they know where they are, as they search for their mark. At the end of the play, I'm in shock. I hadn't heeded the warning from the crew to get my Kleenex ready, and I find soon enough that I am unprepared. I'm suddenly teary and crying, reliving memories of uncles and aunts in their final hours of cancer. I remember the story of Mila, the grandmother I never knew, who passed away from ovarian cancer when my mother was only 18.

I REALIZE I HAVE one more interview left with Brothers, who greets me in the stage's workshop area, full of sawdust and woodwork. Her deep hazel eyes are glossy with wet tears. She puts her left hand on my forearm and lets me cry with her. When I compose myself, I ask her how she can bear the immensity of Bearing's emotional baggage. She says she tries to not let it consume her, even though her shaved head is always a topic of conversation, especially around female strangers. It turns out Brothers' bald head is excellent PR; cancer survivors often ask her if she has shared their experience. Even when she says she hasn't, they are uplifted when they discover she will play a woman close to their own personal drama.

"The play is not more about cancer," says Brothers, a Los Angeles-based actress who used to be a stand-up comedian. "It's about a long process, what cancer patients are going through. For the character, it's the thing of trying to say who she is and what her life has been."

Her outpouring and her empathy are uplifting, and I imagine she will draw on that when she emerges opening night cloaked only in her baseball cap and nightgown and nothing else underneath. And even though her experience as a comedian might help the audience connect with Bearing, Brothers knows it won't be a cure-all for half-naked anxiety.

"Trying to figure out your life in front of people is what makes the play really terrifying for me," she says. "It's an extraordinary place to go to. It's the place I go to for every performance."

W;t's opening gala begins at 8pm, Saturday, Jan. 27. Preview days will be Wednesday, January 24; Thursday, January 25, and Friday, January 26, at 8pm. Regular performances are Wednesday to Saturday at 8pm; matinees are Sunday at 2pm. There will be a post-show discussion on Sunday, February 4, and Thursday, February 8; open to the public and free of charge. San Jose Stage Company, 490 S. First St., San Jose. (408.283.7142 or www.sanjosestage.com)

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From the January 25-31, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

For more information about the San Jose/Silicon Valley area, visit sanjose.com.

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