PUTNEY -- To prepare for her role as Dr. Vivian Bearing in the Apron Theater Company production of "Wit," which opens tonight at Next Stage, actress Keely Eastley did two profound things last week.
First, she had her head shaved, since she plays a patient in the last stages of terminal cancer.
Then, she spent a day in the Oncology Department at Brattleboro Memorial Hospital, spending time, with proper permission and clearance, with patients there.
"It was that much more embracing of what this is, and the women who are suffering with this," said Eastley, pausing to speak during a break in rehearsal last Tuesday night. "I don’t how, but I will be changed."
Audiences, too, can expect to be at least moved if not changed by Margaret Edson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play which follows the last hours of a brilliant and exacting poetry professor undergoing experimental treatment for ovarian cancer.
Performances take place Thursday through Saturday, July 11-13 and 18-20 at 8 p.m., with a matinee this Sunday at 2 p.m., at Next Stage, 15 Kimball Hill.
Audiences might also be surprised to find themselves uplifted by the play, considering the unflinching honesty with which it deals with cancer and death. But that’s the power and the beauty of "Wit" and why director Hallie Flower was so drawn to the play.
"It’s not a play about cancer. It’s about grace," said Flower. "I hope we’ll be landing the play in a place of uplift and hope. ... I’m particularly interested in human connection. This is a story of life and human kindness."
"It becomes really about people ... about people’s need for each other," said Eastley. "Vivian’s an intellectual. Whatever difficulties have come up in life, she’s faced them with her intellect. As she faces death, she cannot do that. ... I don’t think a person can really do that from their intellect. She is trying to find some peace and some grace."
This production of "Wit" marks the return to the local scene of Apron Theater Company, which Flower, Karla Baldwin and Carrie Kidd founded in 2002. For a couple of years, they presented plays at the Hooker-Dunham Theater, including "Proof" and "How I Learned to Drive."
When Flower moved away, Apron folded up, but when she returned, it came back to life.
"For us, the philosophy is creating a nurturing environment where we can encourage people to take risks," said Flower. "We tend to choose scripts that beg some kind of questions."
Apron Theater Company came back to life at the same time Next Stage Arts was looking for a "resident" theater company. When the two connected, it was a natural fit.
"We are thrilled to be expanding our repertoire of cultural presentations in the community to include theater, and particularly of this caliber. Apron is a wonderful partner for our organization," stated Next Stage board member Billy Straus.
Flower, Eastley and a couple of other members of the "Wit" cast met each other doing the Vermont Theatre Company production of "Doubt" in 2012.
Flower pitched the role of Dr. Bearing to Eastley. "I read it, and foolishly said ‘Yes,’" joked Eastley.
Nonetheless she willingly sank heart and soul into this demanding role -- Dr. Bearing never leaves the stage.
"I couldn’t have imagined really what the journey would be," said Eastley. "To finally get to do the full arc of it, it’s cathartic."
So have been experiences like spending a day last week with cancer patients at BMH. Eastley listened to their stories and was moved to tears.
"I got to leave and go home and go back with my life, and they got their chemo," said Eastley, tears welling up again at the memory of it. "It’s about the will to live and the need for hope."
"I’m always attracted to plays about how we can live more fully," said Flower.
The cast also features Greg Lesch as Dr. Kelekian, Mark Bateman as Dr. Jason Posner, Julia Tadlock as nurse Suzie Monahan and Jeanne L. Austin as Professor E.M. Ashford. Also in the cast are Ben Stockman, Carrie Kidd, Ann-Marie White and Noah Flower-DesJardins.
The production team includes Carrie Kidd (assistant director), Jon Hathaway (set design), Vivian K Smith (costume design), John Todd (lighting design) and Katia Morosan (stage management).
Tickets are $10 general admission. For reservations, call 802-387-0071. Tickets may also be purchased at www.nextstagearts.org.
Next Stage Arts Project is a non-profit organization dedicated to revitalizing Putney’s cultural and economic village center through the programming, development and operation of Next Stage. Information about upcoming events, renovation plans and theater enhancements and a range of opportunities for support is available at www.nextstagearts.org. For more information, contact Next Stage Executive Director Maria Basescuat 802-387-0102 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.