September 20, 2010

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Vivian Bearing is a 17th century poetry professor who specializes in the sonnets of John Donne. After decades of choosing work over a personal life, she's been diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Margaret Edson's play is a brutally honest look at one woman's fight against cancer and coming to terms with the world she's made for herself. This intelligent play speaks to the loneliness our society can breed when we wrap ourselves up in our work and alienate ourselves from others.

Even in this most dire time in her life Vivian can't help condescending to those she considers less intelligent than her, even those who show her affection. Her defensive nature has been built up to the point where she doesn't know how to ask for help or show weakness. She values intellect over kindness, even though it has left her alone.

Vivian is ironically facing the cold professionalism of doctors in the hospital in the same way her students have had to deal with her. Both she and her doctors prefer research to humanity and she's learning too late how cruel that can feel. In the midst of undergoing 8 months of chemotherapy, Vivian's thick shell begins to crumble as her body succumbs to the cancer. She escapes the pain by delving deeper into the world of metaphysical poetry, but soon she can't deny her vulnerability and she discovers that in the end the simplicity of human connection is what we long for above all else.

Susan Pieples is absolutely enchanting as the logical and distant Vivian. There's a delicate balance to portraying the prickly professor. The audience must understand how she's pushed away the people in her life and yet still have a deep sympathy for her. Pieples captured this balance perfectly.

Pieples shaved her head for the role, a seemingly small decision that demonstrates the essential dedication to character and enhances the power of the show. Though there are a few other characters, Pieples carries the show. Without her amazing performance it would have fallen flat.

The supporting cast is excellent as well. In the limited scenes the dialogue is sharp and the emotions are clear with each sigh and pursed lips. The only thing I would have changed about the show is the choice of music. Instead of enhancing the performances the odd collection of elevator music and Danny Elfman compositions became a bit distracting.

The simple set consists of a backdrop of seven black screens, each is turned around during the course of the show, to the opposite white side. The beauty of this simple act demonstrates the undeniable progression of her disease and the passage of time in a poignant way.

I've been continually impressed by the material The Theater Within has chosen to tackle. They've picked such excellent, challenging pieces that I can't wait to see what's next.

Don't Miss the Show
For more information about The Theater Within, visit their website. The theater is located at 1125 Spruce St., Indianapolis, IN 46203, just four blocks east of Fountain Square along Prospect Street immediately south of the KFC.

Performances: The show runs until Sept. 25 and offers two performances a week, Fridays and Saturdays beginning at 8 p.m.

Tickets: To purchase tickets, call (317) 850-4665. Prices range from $13 to $15. Up next at the Theater Within is Death and the Maiden, which opens Nov. 5.

Photo courtesy of The Theater Within

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