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Giving Tree Theater’s ‘Wit’ tackles cancer with humor and poetry

By Diana Nollen, The Gazette | UPDATED: December, 31 2015 |

At first glance, “Wit” doesn’t seem like a suitable title for a drama about a dying patient.

But this 1999 Pulitzer Prize winner, which opens Friday (1/1) at Giving Tree Theater in Marion, weaves in enough humor and poetry to counter the pathos.

“It’s not a laugh riot by any means, but it is funny,” said Marty Norton, 63, of Robins.

Norton plays the lead role of Vivian Bearing, an English professor who is enrolled in an experimental treatment for terminal ovarian cancer, and unlike in her classroom, is not in control of her situation.

“We’re finding as we go through it, more of the humor. That’s what makes this piece so amazing,” Norton said. “If it were the dark-dark-darkness that her illness is, it would be horrible to sit through. But she’s witty and wry, and she laughs at herself in some of the darkest moments. She finds it almost ridiculous in some of the instances that she is in, and she kind of entertains herself. And so by making that accessible to the audience, you learn so much more about her that way.”

Director Heather Akers, 40, of Cedar Rapids, agrees.

“Vivian is a very smart but very witty woman, and lets us in on the joke from time to time,” she said.

The character of Bearing also is an expert on the metaphysical poetry of John Donne, a Church of England cleric, whose life spanned the 16th and 17th centuries.

“The title part (references) not only her wit, but John Donne was one of the wittiest poets of his time and (was) celebrated for his wit. She references that numerous, numerous times throughout the piece. She kind of idolizes him and finds a kinship between herself and him and his poem,” Norton said.

The piece is a tour de force for the lead actress, who has appeared in nearly 60 shows since 1994. She not only has to wrap her tongue around Donne’s poetry, but around medical jargon in a way that makes the language easily understood by actors and audiences, alike. It’s a play that hasn’t been done in the Corridor very often. Iowa City’s Riverside Theatre presented it in 2001.

“The language makes the show very difficult,” Akers said. “And it absolutely requires a lead with intellect, grace and humor. A huge portion of this show falls on Marty’s shoulders, even in sheer words.”

Norton memorized her huge chunks of dialogue first, before learning the conversations between characters. “I started working on it several months ago, fortunately, because there are six-page monologues where I had to look up every word so I would know what she’s saying,” Norton said.

“This playwright is amazing,” Akers said of Margaret Edson, who has “Wit” to her credit.

“Marty’s joke is that she used up all of her words in one play – that’s why she only wrote one,” Akers said. “Every single character has a mouthful. It’s a very thoughtful piece, but it’s not completely cerebral. It truly has an ‘Ebenezer Scrooge on Christmas morning’ moment, where the lead character has looked back on her life and the lack of personal relationships that she’s had, and has that kind of awakening and starts to look for kindness. So it’s not completely inaccessible, even though the language is complex.”

Akers, who co-owns Giving Tree Theater with her husband, Richie, works by day at Mercy Medical Center as director of organizational development and patient relations. She called upon her colleagues to work with the cast for the authentic delivery of dialogue and medical procedures used throughout the show.

Of the nine cast members, most have had friends or relatives touched by cancer.

It’s an especially poignant journey for Norton, who has to immerse herself in the all-to-familiar world of catastrophic illnesses. Her older brother, who died in 2010 at age 64, suffered all his life with a rare bone disease and went through experimental treatments. She donated a kidney to him, after his were ravaged by the long-term effects of his drug regimen. Their mother succumbed to breast cancer in 2014 at age 96.

Norton thinks of them as she encounters and embodies Vivian.

“I just feel obligated to my friends and family who have had to suffer with horrible illness,” she said. “To me, it’s like my nod to them.

“Not only does Vivian face a complicated emotional journey, her physical evolution demands much of any actress in the non-stop, 90-minute one-act play.

“At the top, she has gone through some treatments, but it is an incredible (physical) arc,” Norton said. “It’s like a marathon, because there’s no intermission. So once she starts, it takes her through. Not only does she have the arc of her illness, but she has these flashback scenes where sees herself as a 5-year-old, and she sees herself as the professor and the student. It’s kind of a marathon with high jumps.

“It’s kind of exhausting, but exhilarating at the same time.”

It’s also a wake-up call.

“There’s a huge take-away message about patient-centered care,” Akers said. “There’s a message for medical professionals that says, ‘Do not forget to put the patient at the center of your care.’ You forget that when people come into a workplace that I’m used to, that they are scared, and they are out of control, and they’re nervous, and they’re sick. We forget sometimes that every single encounter needs to be laced with compassion and kindness. That message is so strongly delivered through this show.

“The other piece of that goes even beyond the medical profession. It is a reminder for us all in our day-to-day lives that everybody needs kindness and everybody needs compassion – and especially that folks going through illness are more than the disease that they’ve been diagnosed with.”


  • WHAT: “Wit”
  • WHERE: Giving Tree Theater, 752 10th St., Marion
  • WHEN: Friday (1/1) to Jan. 10; 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays
  • TICKETS: $16 to $26, Theater Box Office, (319) 213-7956 or

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