It isn't every day that an actor prepares for a stage role by training for the triathlon. And it's hardly a prerequisite for a woman preparing to play a 50-year-old professor of 17th-century poetry who has just learned she has fourth stage metatastic ovarian cancer. But Suzzanne Douglas, who plays Vivian Bearing Ph.D. in the New Jersey premiere of Margaret Edson's play, Wit, met the challenge, as she says, "head on."

Wit opened Wednesday, October 18, 2000 at George Street Playhouse, with performances continuing through November 12. Douglas is known for her stage work as well as some 14 movie credits, including her role as Angela in "How Stella Got Her Groove Back." She is also part of the WB Network TV series "The Parent 'Hood." Also featured in Wit are Helen Gallagher, who appeared in George Street's premiere of Anne Meara's After-Play, David Wolos Fonteno, Scott Andrew Harrison, and Jodi Somers.

In our phone conversation during a rehearsal break at George Street Playhouse, Douglas tells me that she got the role without a formal audition, but rather after an informal meeting with Ted Sod, the play's director. She says Sod, who is also George Street Playhouse's artistic associate and director of education and outreach, made the decision to cast Douglas because of her depth of understanding of the character.

Wit is Margaret Edson's first play. It opened Off-Broadway in 1998, where I reviewed it as "a stunner." It went on to win the Pulitzer Prize and enjoy a run of close to two years. Whether or not you followed it then, it's important to know that Wit is far from a morbid reflection of a single, middle-aged woman who has been given a negative prognosis. Nor is it out to exploit the pain, regrets and sorrows that may be perceived as inevitable reactions to illness. At the core of Wit lies an indomitable force of a willful individualist determined, at all costs, not to become a victim. The play shows Bearing preparing herself for what she knows will be a torturous ordeal, and addressing the inevitable pain with both wit and hubris.

An established African-American actor with a career that spans 25 years, Douglas' Broadway credits include Into the Woods, The Wiz and The Threepenny Opera (in the Lotte Lenya role opposite Sting). Her movie credits include "The Inkwell" and "I'll Do Anything," and she earned an NAACP image award for her performance opposite Sammy Davis Jr. and Gregory Hines in the movie, "Tap."

Douglas trained as a classical actor at Illinois State University, along with fellow students (and now professionals) that include John Malkovitch, Judith Ivey, Laurie Metcalf, and Gary Sinise. Her decision to leave the university just 30 hours short of a degree also distinguishes Douglas as a unique individual, and -- although there are marked differences -- as uniquely individualistic and purposeful as the academic character she portrays in Wit.

While Douglas agrees that the role is markedly different from anything she has played before, she says that she sees Edson's play as "a very smart text, and written by a very bright woman." Notwithstanding Edson's own college degrees in history and literature, it was Edson's experience working in the cancer unit of a research hospital that inspired her to write what most critics agree is an incredibly moving and perceptive play.

Responding to my question whether she found it necessary to draw on any personal experiences to help her understand what Bearing is going through, Douglas answers, "Yes, it's what all actors do. I've known people with metatastic cancer, and my husband is a physician. But mostly I have to draw on that wonderful tool that actor's draw upon -- the imagination."

Beyond the use of personal imagination, Douglas refers to the scholar who is working with the cast to get inside the John Donne poems that resonate so strongly throughout the play. As an impassioned devotee of the poet, and in particular his Holy Sonnets ("Death be not proud"), Bearing is perceived as a stiff-necked, self-sufficient and word-intoxicated teacher. That she is also a priceless wit and a qualified spokesperson for Donne's metaphysical exploration of the eternal interplay of life and death makes her, certainly in this author's care, a woman of unusual resources.

In contrast to the character she plays, Douglas says she personally finds Donne and his tortured existence "tedious," and the reading she has done of his works has not, like Bearing, led her to become a devotee. "I find it interesting that Edson uses Donne. However, he's so right on target for this character," says Douglas, as she emphasizes a very different frame of reference for her life. She sees Bearing as a woman who has been "completely myopic in her thinking, living her life through Donne, and literally tortured as much by his words as by her ordeal."

Although Douglas says, "I grew up a Christian home where the thinking was to remove `I' from your vocabulary," she understands Bearing's authoritative position in a traditional old boy's network. While Douglas says that the insights provided by an oncology expert are an aid to her understanding of Bearing's illness and treatment, it was looking in the mirror after she shaved her head that made things clearer. "It's funny that when I'm on the street, people who don't know me must think I am recovering from something.
"Although at first it was foreign, alien-like, I realized looking in the mirror it was me, and my hair or lack of it is not me," says Douglas. She makes a point of emphasizing one of the play's more pervasive issues: "Living a life and having a complete life." "Vivian Bearing becomes so obsessed with Donne and becoming a scholar that she forgets to get out and live her life," says Douglas.

"When you die, Simon," Douglas tells me in a philosophical aside, "no one cares who you wrote for, but who did you touch, who did you love, in whose life did you make a difference?"

Throughout the play, Douglas, as Bearing, will be seen wearing a hospital gown and a baseball cap over her hairless head, and, as often as not, pulling an IV unit around the stage as she shares with us the last excruciating eight months of her life. This, as flashbacks reflect on this unusual and valiant woman who fell in love with words, but whose salvation is ultimately filtered with a memory of a former student's unwittingly dispensed wisdom, and the transporting affection she earns from an equally stern teacher, played by Helen Gallagher.

Throughout the drama, which follows Bearing through weeks of radical experimental treatments, radium, and traditional chemotherapy, Bearing gives us a running commentary on the callous yet conscientious hospital staff and the discouraging ongoing procedures. Douglas reflects for just an instant before establishing the fact that the role "is the biggest challenge of my career, but not of my life." She says the everyday challenges that arise for her as the wife of a neurological radiologist at Morristown Memorial, as the mother of five-year-old daughter, Jordan, and as a participant in the triathlon, "enable me to do a role such as this." A Maplewood resident for the past 11 years, Douglas took part in a triathlon last July to raise funds for breast cancer research.

The fact that Douglas didn't know how to swim a single stroke before training for the triathlon, gives us a clue to the kind of human being she is. It may also be a clue to the kind of actor that she is.

"I never learned to swim growing up in the projects in Chicago," she says. "There was no pool in the back yard." Douglas then quotes Louise Hayes, a metaphysical cancer guru, "Feel the fear and do it anyway." "It's hard," she says, remembering her goal in the swimming part of the triathlon was not to reach out for help. "It's too easy to ask for help. The hard thing is to look within and know you are capable of getting to the other side, alive. I did it, and now I can say it was one of the most monumental things I ever did in my life."

Douglas may want to add her role in Wit as the next monumental challenge she has met head on. "Vivian Bearing and I do share one thing," she says. "We like a challenge."


Key Subjects: 
Suzzanne Douglas, Wit, George Street Playhouse
Simon Saltzman
Writer Bio: 
Simon Saltzman has written dozens of New York theater reviews for This Month ON STAGE magazine. His interviews have appeared in TMOS and on Playbill On-Line.
October 2000
Suzzanne Douglas Takes On Life And Art