If you had two hours to live, would you spend them, as poet Dylan Thomas advised, “rag[ing] against the dying of the light”? Or would you go quietly, at peace, into that good night?

That’s a question that Vivian Bearing, a 50-year-old English professor with Stage IV ovarian cancer, confronts in “Wit,” Margaret Edson’s 1999 Pulitzer Prize-winning play.

And it’s a question actor Sally Wingert essays with toughness and poignancy at Artistry in Bloomington, where the play opened Saturday.

Wingert is a Twin Cities treasure, having tread the boards at the Guthrie, on Broadway, in London and elsewhere. She has shaved her head and donned hospital gowns for her turn in the intimate black box space at Artistry in Bloomington, where “Wit” plays through May 28.

Prof. Bearing, the flinty character Wingert so ably inhabits, has agreed to be a research subject at a hospital that is giving her experimental doses of chemotherapy. Coincidentally, one of the clinical fellows attending her is former student Jason Posner (Corey DiNardo in a Spock-like performance). He is a reflection of her younger self — someone more interested in academic inquiry than in human feelings, even though he asks her, “How’re you doing?”

Director Ben McGovern’s unsentimental production takes place on a sterile, empty stage that feels cold and ghostly. Orderlies and hospital staff watch from the sidelines as Bearing’s soul readies for its flight.

The play does have moments of compassion, however. Vivian’s primary nurse, Susie Monahan (gentle Cristina Castro), inquires after her well-being with genuine care. And Vivian’s own professor and adviser, E.M. Ashford (subtly caring Barbra Berlovitz), who was once an exacting teacher who would go to war over a comma, shows up for Vivian at her most vulnerable moment. Berlovitz’s Prof. Ashford climbs into Vivian’s bed with her, and reads her a simple story.

“Wit” has nine actors, but the show feels like a solo work. That’s because Wingert’s Vivian has most of the lines. And Wingert herself fills up the space as she gives us her character’s inner life. We feel her fear, her struggle and, ultimately, her courage.

While Vivian’s specialty was the poetry of John Donne, whose “Death be not proud” is woven throughout the play, this is a play about life. “Wit” backlights the quality of living, and offers instruction about human connections. That all of these themes come together so affectingly in “Wit” is due in no small part to Wingert.

This Twin Cities icon is giving a performance that is tough, subtle and ethereal, like the character she so masterfully plays — a cut stone giving off the gentlest of light.

 

rpreston@startribune.com

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Twitter: @rohanpreston