Synopsis Of The Play

Professor Vivian Bearing, literary researcher, is now herself the subject of cancer research. Two dissimilar fields of study form the foundation of a moving play looking at the boundaries of the intellect and the expanses of the heart. Primarily set in a University Hospital Comprehensive Cancer Center room, there are no action breaks between scenes and no intermission in the 90-minute play. Therefore, lighting changes signify important transitions. Dr. Bearing enters an empty stage pushing an IV pole, giving immediacy to her dire situation. She wears two overlapping hospital gowns for modesty and a hospital ID bracelet, and covers her baldness with a baseball cap. Out of a cast of nine, Bearing carries the play, intermittently breaking the fourth wall by directly addressing the audience. Setting the tone for the play, in her professorial voice she asks the audience, "Hi. How are you feeling today?" Then in a witty academic response slightly mocking, she analyzes the question's ironic significance, indicating its rhetorical rather than sincere quality because no one is listening any way.

In a flashback scene Chief of Oncology Dr. Kelekian dispassionately announces to Dr. Bearing in medical jargon that she has stage 4 meta-static ovarian cancer with tumors spreading quickly. She will receive eight months of aggressive but experimental chemotherapy, taking the full dose to significantly contribute to knowledge. She must be very tough, he says, and she signs an informed consent. Given this drastic news, Bearing retreats into her intellect, making a mental note to create a bibliography for studying her disease. Both doctors, as academics, commiserate on the state of their students' scholarship. Bearing learns the treatment for her insidious cancer will have pernicious side effects, but she views her plight as a challenge, taking comfort in applying her lifelong discipline of exploring mortality in Donne's Holy Sonnets.

Twenty-eight years earlier Bearing's mentor E. M. Ashford berates her for emotionally analyzing Donne's "Holy Sonnet Six" rather than critically reading it with a correctly punctuated line: "And death shall be no more, Death thou shalt die." In this uncompromised version a mere comma, a breath, separates life from everlasting life. A future academic, Bearing eagerly returns to the library, although Professor Ashford suggests she join friends. Back in the present, Bearing deals with the impersonal hospital regimen, save for her compassionate nurse, Suzie. The emotionally detached young doctor, Jason, once Bearing's student, oversees the study protocol. Bearing answers his battery of questions, wit intact, describing her progressive symptoms.

Then Jason in a dehumanizing manner performs a pelvic examination, excitedly confirming her ovarian mass. Tests and treatments ensue as do Bearing's nausea and vomiting. Her only visitors are medical students on rounds.

In another flashback Dr. Bearing is five, reading Beatrix Potter's The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies to her father, who explains the word "soporific" (sleepy) to her. Hence, her love of words began early and extended into the wonders of metaphysical poetry, as it does now less evocatively to medical terms. She has endured her outpatient chemotherapy but now rushes to the hospital shaking, feverish, and weak. Suzie suggests Bearing's dose be lowered; Jason insists on the full dose, which paradoxically imperils her health but is done in the interest of knowledge. The scene shifts, spotlighting Dr. Bearing's metaphysical lecture on the doctrine teaching that God forgives overweening intellect. But Suzie preempts it, taking her unwilling patient for more tests. Growing weaker, Bearing, evoking Donne's sensibilities, visualizes this to be her "playes last scene." However, Jason enters. He explains his enthusiasm for studying cancer, but acknowledges he lacks the bedside manner only "troglodyte" clinicians are trained for. Bearing tries to tap into Jason's emotions but is put off. Even though she is now in a "pathetic state as a simpering victim," Bearing realizes they both have exalted research at the expense of humanity. Thinking her confused, Jason denies the touch of human kindness she needs.

Next Bearing's inhumanity appears in her teaching methods. In a profound classroom moment later easily applied to Bearing's illness, a student sees Donne as a man who is "scared, so he hides behind all this complicated stuff, hides behind this wit." Bearing finds her student's view that simple is better a "perspicacious remark" but puts down his "heroic [mental] effort." An uncompromising teacher, Bearing flatly denies a student's paper extension due to her grandmother's death. This lack of compassion later becomes a regret. Back during the hospital's graveyard shift the agitated Bearing appears to be sundown-ing and creates a little emergency so Suzie will come see her. Bearing is scared, having lost control in her life; she is in need ofcomfort. Suzie shares an orange Popsicle with her, and they talk about Bearing's advancing cancer and code status. Despite the cancer researchers' desire for more knowledge, Bearing wants no heroic measures to restart her heart, which is noted in her chart. She is afraid, and only aggressive pain management—palliative care—helps now. Jason enters the room while in the background Bearing lapses into a drug-induced sleep. He tells Suzie his theory that all the while Donne conjured his "brilliantly convoluted" sonnets—not unlike trying to quantify the increasing levels of complexity in medical research puzzles—it ironically never released his salvation anxiety. Jason hastily adds, the sentimental "meaning-of-life garbage" is not for him.

In the penultimate scene Professor Emerita Ashford visits the semiconscious Bearing, crawls into her hospital bed, holds her, and reads The Runaway Bunny, a book for her five-year-old grandson. Ashford gently kisses the sleeping Bearing and says upon departing, "It's time to go. And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest." Then Jason stridently enters, notes his patient's lack of vital signs, and without checking her chart calls a code blue. Frantically he pounds her chest and performs mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Suzie enters and announces his mistake: Bearing is no code. But a frenzied code team swoops in, at first deaf to Suzie's pleas to stop. At last the violent activity ceases, and the audience focuses on the bed as Suzie lifts the blanket from her patient. The surprise ending—with Bearing embraced by God's light—will not be revealed here. House lights fade to black.

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