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Playwright, veteran actors to be part of Bethel production of 'Wit'

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NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – A chance to get a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright on the Bethel College campus was one Megan Upton-Tyner could not let go by.

As she rounds out her first year as instructor of theater at Bethel, Upton-Tyner is directing a Bethel production of Wit by Margaret Edson, which won the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for drama and was later made into a 2001 HBO movie starring Emma Thompson.

The play will be on the Krehbiel Auditorium stage in the Fine Arts Center at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, May 5, and Friday, May 6, and at 1:30 p.m. Saturday, May 7.

Margaret Edson will be part of discussion sessions after the May 6 performance and before the May 7 one and will speak in convocation at Bethel May 6 at 11 a.m., also in Krehbiel Auditorium.

Upton-Tyner took Edson up on a declaration in February 2010 that she would travel to see Annette Thornton play Vivian Bearing, the lead role in Wit, in a fully staged production.

In February 2010, Bethel graduate Joy Goldsmith, associate professor of communication at Young Harris (Ga.) College, organized a symposium at YHC on the performance of palliative care that included a staged reading of Wit, with Edson, who is from Atlanta, present. Goldsmith had asked her former Bethel professors, John McCabe-Juhnke, professor of communication arts, and Thornton to read the roles of Dr. Harvey Kelekian and Vivian Bearing.

“Joy told me later that Maggie Edson was very enamored of Annette’s reading,” says McCabe-Juhnke. “She said she’d like to see a fully staged production with Annette in the role and that she would come for it.”

Wit follows the last hours of a single, middle-aged academic and Donne scholar as she is dying of ovarian cancer after undergoing an experimental and aggressive regime of chemotherapy.

Thornton is a professor and director of musical theater at Central Michigan University, Mt. Pleasant. She is a former adjunct instructor in dance and theater at Bethel. Of the role of Vivian Bearing, she says, “I have often played the mother or the aunt. Once in graduate school, I played the dean at a university.

“In each of my roles, I find connections with the character, but I will say that I connect deeply with Vivian's personal and professional journey. It is humbling. This role is very complex: flashbacks, illness, dying, breaking the fourth wall and being in the present moment. So discovering the road map has been a great application of all my training and what I teach my students.”

Other characters in the play, which runs about 90 minutes with no intermission, are Vivian’s oncologist, Kelekian; his assistant, a young resident, Jason Posner, who also happens to be a former student of Vivian’s; Vivian’s graduate school professor, mentor and role model, E.M. Ashford; and Vivian’s nurse, Susie Monahan.

Wit will be unlike any Bethel production in recent memory – not in treating difficult and often painful subject matter, but in cast makeup and the way Upton-Tyner has envisioned and planned for connections across disciplines.

Casting of the three main characters is age-appropriate: in addition to Thornton and McCabe-Juhnke reprising their roles from the staged reading, veteran Wichita actress and retired instructor at Wichita State University Joyce Cavarozzi will play E.M. Ashford.

Both Thornton, who earned her M.A. at WSU, and Upton-Tyner, as an undergraduate, had Cavarozzi as a professor. “I’m thrilled to have her in the role of E.M. Ashford,” says Thornton, a sentiment Upton-Tyner echoes.

There will also be students in the cast – Lacey Parker, senior from Lone Tree, Iowa, as Thornton’s understudy; Seth Dunn, junior from Fresno, Calif., as Jason; Renee Reimer, sophomore from Sioux Falls, S.D., as Susie; and Jacob Brubaker, Miami, Ariz., Cody Claassen, Whitewater, Naomi Graber, Elkhart, Ind., Clint Harris, Manhattan, Julia Miller, Hesston, and Marike Stucky, Moundridge, as the fellows, students and technicians.

Creigh Bartel, Newton, is the stage manager. Lighting design is by Eric Goering, McPherson. Dalton Smith, Burrton, and Nathan Snyder, Hesston, are in charge of props, with Keari Bennett, Sharon, on costumes. Other crew members are Taylor Ambrosi, Independence, Mo., Alex Hammack, Wichita, Cora Ogden, Haven, Tanner Smith, Hiawatha, and Nathen Yunker, South Haven.

Funds from the Greer Fine Arts Endowment are helping bring Edson to campus. The late Robert C. ’48 and Amparo Goering established the endowment in 1979 in memory of their friend Milford E. Greer. In addition, KMUW-FM 89, the NPR affiliate in Wichita, is the production’s media sponsor.

Thornton and Cavarozzi had said yes to their roles, performance dates were set and Edson had agreed to come – and then Upton-Tyner discovered that, serendipitously, May 6 begins National Nursing Week.

Bethel Assistant Professor of Nursing Joanne Kaster began using the 2001 movie version of Wit as a teaching tool last spring. “We showed it to our senior nursing students,” she says, “and discussed it and critiqued it afterward. Our focus was on communication, attitudes of health-care personnel, respect of patients, listening skills and personal values.

“Our goal is to have our students – our future nurses – look at the entire picture of a patient traveling a difficult path, and the importance of being a patient advocate.” The department plans to regularly use the movie, she says.

Upton-Tyner contacted Phyllis Miller, director of nursing, to see how the department could connect with Edson’s visit to campus and the performance of the play.

All nursing students will be encouraged to see the play, preferably when there will be discussion sessions with Edson, and there will be a special symposium Thursday, May 5, with Bethel College nursing faculty, on using Wit in the nursing classroom.

There are also plans for how to involve the broader health-care community through Newton Medical Center. The cast did some early read-throughs during Thornton’s spring break but otherwise she is on campus only for the week of the play, so Parker has filling the role for rehearsals before then. Upton-Tyner envisions having the Bethel-based cast work up excerpts from Wit to perform in community settings beyond campus and encourage discussion of the issues the play raises.

“This opportunity [with Wit] hits at what Bethel is about and the niche I’m trying to carve out for Bethel theater,” Upton-Tyner says. “It goes beyond the stage, out into the community. It engages a different part of our humanity. This is an excellent example of how theater can influence and teach people.”

Ticket prices for Wit are $10 for adults; $8 for seniors, non-Bethel students and any nursing student or person who works in a medical field, with valid ID; and $5 for Bethel students. Tickets are on sale at Thresher Bookstore in Schultz Student Center on the Bethel campus, Monday-Friday, 8 a.m.-5 p.m., or call 316-284-5205 (tickets may be purchased over the phone using a credit card).

The May 5 nursing symposium, which will take place in Krehbiel Auditorium from 9:30-10:45 a.m., is free and open to the public. Margaret Edson’s May 6 convocation, “Out of Breath,” is also free and open to the public, but seating is limited and priority will be given to Bethel students, faculty and staff.

SIDEBAR: Using drama to spur discussion

NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – From the beginning, Megan Upton-Tyner, who is directing a production of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play Wit at Bethel College, envisioned the production going wider than the Bethel stage.

Toward that end, there will be an event at Newton Medical Center Thursday, April 28, a week before the play’s performance dates of May 5-7 in Krehbiel Auditorium in the Fine Arts Center.

“Patients’ Rights and Health-care Decision-Making,” a lunch symposium for nurses and physicians, will take place in the board room at Newton Medical Center from 12:15-1:30 p.m., with lunch provided. Sponsors are Bethel College and the NMC Healthcare Ethics Committee.

The symposium will start with the Bethel-based cast of Wit (including Lacey Parker, senior from Lone Tree, Iowa, in the lead role of Vivian Bearing, which Annette Thornton will have in the full production) performing several scenes from the play, to be followed by remarks from a nurse and a doctor (still to be determined) as well as ethics scholar Duane Friesen of North Newton, Edmund G. Kaufman Professor Emeritus of Bible and Religion at Bethel.

Finally, there will be a chance for all participants to discuss what they have seen and heard. Phyllis Miller, director of nursing at Bethel, will facilitate the discussion.

This collaborative effort between Bethel’s departments of theater and nursing is meant to stimulate discussion on end-of-life care, Upton-Tyner says.

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