“Nothing but a breath – a comma – separates life from life everlasting. It is very simple really.”

In America, where a play can be judged in it’s written form as literature (though this does not mean that the prize has always been awarded- see 2006 and 2007), Margaret Edson has acheived two notable accolades for “W;t” – Pulitzer Prize for Drama and Best New Play, New York Drama Critics Circle. Impressive. The list of other plays awarded prizes or noted as finalists for the Pulitzer prize for Drama, have appeared on many of Sydney’s independent stages in recent years and include- Will Eno’s Thom Pain (based on nothing), John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt, a parable, Christopher Shinn’s Dying City, Tracy Letts’ August: Osage County. New Theatre has taken a punt on a largely unknown playwright- who has only written two plays (the second of which and a largely unknown play: and have put the story first.

Transposed across time and space, New Theatre’s production is well equipped with a beautiful set design courtesy of James Croke, a robust and interesting cast, and clear direction thanks to director Jane Eakin. No need for motley American accents, the location is implied… after all, ovarian cancer is not an exclusively American issue, nor are the personal questions raised when faced with a terminal illness.

Vivian Bearing is a hard-faced, high-brow academic specializing in the world’s best loved, 17th Century metaphysical poet: John Donne. Unmarried. Without children. With a mind as sharp and concise as any of Donne’s poems, she is known for her staunch and unforgiving intellect. She is proud of her career achievements. She is proud of her mind. She is proud. She is the top of her field. She also has advanced metastatic ovarian cancer, stage four. There’s no stage five.

John Donne’s poetry appeals most to those who enjoy unpicking wordplay- who enjoy dense arguments presented through a prism of wit. It is not Donne’s love poems which are featured in W;t, but his poems confronting and challenging death. Sonnets more like a war cry than a love letter. Vivian, herself is more war cry than love letter. A rigorous thinker and battler- charging her way through seas of ignorant teenage university students. Finding herself in hospital- reduced to the limitations of her body ( as opposed to her limitless intellectual capacity), she maintains her persona of teacher- of doctor- despite the fact that in a hospital- doctors are commonplace. Vivian is placed in the position of student- learning about her body, about cancer- unpicking her past, trying to make meaning out of her life.

It is a deeply philosophical play, asking the audience to consider what the true value of life is- when faced with death. What value is status ad respect- if you are alone? Can logic prepare you for your own death? What is the value of the “comma” which separates life from life everlasting?

Eakin’s ensemble of performers offer strong and warm performances. Most notably that of Vivian’s foils- her mentor, E. M. Ashford (played artfully by Margaret McManus) who is tough but kind and her ever attentive heart of gold nurse Susie Monahan (the ever fun and beautiful Shondelle Pratt) who bring warmth and love to someone who is seemingly unlovable. Matt Charleston is suitably focused, ambitious and occasionally arrogant as Dr Posner- offering another foil for Vivian to see her own shortcomings in those she has come in contact with. Matt Butcher carries the role of Harvey Kelekian with great gravitas, providing another perspective of those at the Top of their field- who somehow lose touch with their humanity. Karen’s Bayley’s Vivian is difficult to love and sometimes difficult to empathize with- and Bayley does not have an easy job to demonstrate that emotional/enlightened gear change. The swathes of direct address is alienatingly self aware (both in subject matter and delivery)- and at times is more like that of a recitation of someone else’s story than the eloquent musings of a woman who has devoted her life exclusively to the power and effectiveness of words. Structurally this is more Edson’s shortcoming than Eakin’s or Bayley’s. The turning point is too quick- though this may have been helped along with seeing a little more of the personal struggles with her pride and failing biology. Bayley carries the weight of play on her shoulders and confronts the task with great valour – which is no mean feat. But Vivian still seems aloof, cold and bitter- the warmth and fragility is somehow swamped in the portayal of power and intellect.

This is a sturdy and well presented production, with a fine cast and reminds us that despite the ivory tower- and the struggles of career and status- sometimes we can’t help but yield to our biology, admit we are scared and all we want is an ice block and a hug.