An Interview with Mary Lynn Owen, Star of Wit
By Skyler Brown
SB: What is it about this particular show that excites you?
MLO: Margaret Edson has written the journey of a woman’s life. It’s remarkable writing, economic, honest, and continually revelatory to me. This Vivian Bearing—this tough cookie—is a brilliant scholar, a rock star in her own small world of English Literature. She lives at the very top of the ladder, and she likes it there. She is unparalleled, unrivaled, unquestioned; a party of one. With the sudden news that she has stage four ovarian cancer, and her subsequent decision to be part of a rigorous chemotherapy treatment, she is thrust into the medical world where her credentials mean nothing, she has no control, and she doesn’t even speak the language. Her body breaks down, her dignity collapses. And yet without even knowing it she begins to do the hardest work of her life: she faces her vulnerability, the mistakes she’s made, her need for others. And all of this happens in 90 minutes! Living that journey fully every step of the way, at every turn—that’s what excites me.
SB: Conversely, with regard to this show, what terrifies you as an actor?
MLO: I’m tempted to say see above. And yet it’s more than that. It’s the turns in the road, the stumbles, the opportunity to let the play happen—which is also Vivian’s challenge—rather than to make it happen, and then to share that with the audience in a transparent way. The audience is a critical part of this play, a witness to Vivian’s humanity—her flaws and triumphs—and including the audience will be a nightly discovery.
SB: What does the title of the play mean to you and how does it help to frame the story?
MLO: The word, “wit,” actually stems from the same root as the word, “wisdom.” I find that interesting. Vivian can certainly lecture about “wit,” as an application to John Donne’s poetry, but she is unable, in her words, “to appreciate its spontaneous eruption.” She does not know the wisdom of the heart. As her treatments progress, however, and as she saves face through her own sharp wit, and as she lives by her wits throughout her treatment, she has the chance to re-learn the meaning of “wit,” in its original sense.
SB: Does this play have meaning to people who have not been affected by cancer?
MLO: Oh, heavens, yes. The play is not about cancer, in my opinion. Cancer is an agent of the story, the jackhammer that busts up the foundation of Vivian’s life, but cancer is not THE story. Grace is the story. What happens to Vivian as she is stripped of everything, what happens to her when she’s not looking.
SB: Seeing as how the play has been performed for almost 20 years, and in light of the many advances in cancer research and treatment, is the story still relevant to today’s audience?
MLO: Absolutely. A character who has it all figured out, who believes she’s superior to others, and who is then brought to her knees—that’s a timeless story.