‘Wit’ an upbeat tale of a woman’s journey

Bradenton Herald – You may have seen her around Sarasota — the actress who cut off nearly all her hair.

Maybe you thought she was going for an edgier look, or expressing a lean towards a certain persuasion. Or maybe you thought she was sick, with cancer.

Actress Kaylene McCaw says it’s none of the above. But if you guessed cancer, you weren’t too far off base.

McCaw stars in the Pulitzer Prize-winning comic drama “Wit,” which opens at the Players Theatre for a short run beginning 8 p.m. today. In the Margaret Edson play, McCaw plays Vivian Bearing, an intellectual who has just been diagnosed with stage four ovarian cancer.

While trying to beat the disease, she wonders if she’s truly lived life to the fullest.

“She’s devoted her life basically to being a very smart person who knows all about things in the abstract but has not really lived her life, and realizes that when it comes to the point where her life is ending,” said McCaw.

Ovarian cancer is often a silent killer, McCaw said. By the time many woman are diagnosed, it can be too late.

Though the subject matter sounds scary, the show isn’t. It’s called “Wit” for a reason, McCaw said.

“It’s not some icky show about cancer,” she added.

“It’s a brilliant, witty, heartfelt examination of what life is about, and coming to terms with yourself and those struggles.”

McCaw, a costume manager with the Players, has played diverse roles through the years, including an aging ballerina in “Grand Hotel” and Isabella Rossellini in last summer’s Eve Ensler hit “The Good Body” at the theater. But there was something about Vivian — an English literature professor, specializing in 17th century poetry — that made her want to go the extra mile by shaving her head for the community theater production.

The decision wasn’t easy, though, McCaw said. She held the scissors up to her hair several times before handing the job of barber over to her daughter.

The cutting of her tresses turned into a journey in itself for McCaw, who, at first, planned on wearing a bald wig for the show.

Then she realized the best way to really understand her role was by walking in the character’s shoes.

“I can’t bring out the heart of this woman and her experience — her humiliation of losing her hair in a modern society — without living it,” she said.

The reaction around town has been mixed, McCaw said.

Some people think the haircut is cool — retro chic. Older women tell her they want to copy the look. Others believe she’s a fashion victim. Some think maybe she’s gone “butch.”

Then there are the ones who can’t look McCaw in the eye.

“They’re afraid I may be really sick and they don’t want to have that conversation,” she said. “Nobody looks at this and says that’s just normal. There’s some kind of reaction from everybody, but a lot of averted eyes.”

It’s a situation that Vivian experiences in the play.

But “Wit” isn’t all gloomy. Director Jeffery Kin said there are many moments that will have the audience chuckling as well as pull at their heartstrings.

Kelly Walker, who plays the nurse in “Wit,” said Vivian’s journey through the show is touching. As a nurse, she fills Vivian’s world with compassion.

“The nurses are the ones who have the time to give the compassion,” said Walker, who is also a nurse in real life.

“Like we always said in school, the doctors treat the disease, the nurses treat the person. That, I think, shows in this show.”

Cast member William Little, a rising second-year student in the FSU/Asolo Conservatory for Actor Training, plays one of the doctors in “Wit” who is lacking a bedside manner.

Little said his character is more focused on climbing the career ladder and trying to find a cure for cancer.

But as the play unfolds he learns more about himself and opens up.

Kin noted that besides “Wit’s” entertainment factor, the play challenges the mind, which is the main reason he brought it to the Players’ stage.

Little said the play has a deeply strong message people need to hear.

“Since it deals with ovarian cancer, it’s something that needs to be out there,” he said. “I feel that plays that really do have those messages really aren’t seen enough.”

published July 9, 2009

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