Erin Cronican (she/her) isn’t afraid to talk about death. The actor, singer, and director has starred in Shakespeare’s tragedies and Marsha Norman’s ‘night, Mother, as well as co-directing and serving as the dramaturg for the dark comedy The Pillowman.
Producing and starring in Wit, Margaret Edson’s chronicle of a woman’s battle with cancer, during a deadly pandemic would seem a Herculean task for many. But for Cronican, the challenging role of Vivian Bearing, a literature professor undergoing grueling chemotherapy treatments, which she is playing at the Seeing Place Theater in New York City through Jan. 16, hits even closer to home. Cronican herself also has cancer, and like her character’s it is also Stage 4.
Cronican is no stranger to Edson’s Pulitzer-winning work. Shortly after graduating from college, she played the role of Susie, the compassionate nurse who tends to Vivian throughout her treatments, in a reading mounted by the UCSD San Diego School of Medicine. It was a life-changing experience, she recalled, and she ended up playing the role no fewer than four times before moving to New York.
Cronican hoped one day to play Vivian, but she thought the time would come much later in her career. That plan changed when she received her own diagnosis in 2015, when she learned she had Stage 2B breast cancer. After leaving the doctor, she went home and pulled her copy of Wit off the shelf.
“I think I had in my head, ‘How am I going to get through this? This play will tell me how,’” she recalled. “It really doesn’t tell you how to get through it, because it it’s not the same situation. But for some reason I felt like it was soothing to me to read the play.”
After multiple rounds of chemotherapy and radiation, Cronican was declared cancer-free in 2016. But two years later, it returned, having metastasized to her brain, liver, lungs and bones. Doctors told her she had three to five years to live. Cronican returned to Edson’s script. She knew it was time to play Vivian.
Wit was originally planned as part of the Seeing Place Theater’s 2020 season. Then COVID struck, and all theatre, Off-Broadway and on, shut down for more than 18 months until vaccines could ensure safe reopening. It was a frustrating wait for Cronican, who worried that she was running out of time.
“I have so much that I have to say, still in this life, and waiting this long has been difficult,” Cronican said. “I’m just very grateful to be here, because I was given three to five years—that’s the typical amount of time. So I told myself, ‘All right, you may have less than three years, but let’s just say you have three. What do you want to do with those three?’ That’s basically what got me through today. Now it’s been three years and almost two months since my diagnosis, so I’m living on borrowed time.”
Creating her own path is nothing new for Cronican. She founded the Seeing Place Theater in 2009 with Brynn Asha Walker (she/they) as an actor-driven ensemble company committed to producing theatre related to social justice. “We wanted to create the kind of theater we liked to see, but often didn’t see, in New York City,” she said. Each season is centered around a theme, and the 12th season’s is autonomy—a subject Wit embraces, as Vivian fights both for her life and her right to die.
Another member of the ensemble, Robin Friend, had also been treated for cancer in 2021, providing more personal insight into the ensemble’s production. Friend plays Jason Posner, an emotionally detached doctor eager to depart patient care and dive into medical research. The cast also includes Christopher James Murray as Dr. Harvey Kelekian and several ensemble roles, and Janice Hall, who plays Prof. E.M. Ashford and ensemble roles. Walker directs and plays Susie Monahan, Vivian’s nurse.
As rehearsals began and opening night approached, so did the surge of the Omicron variant—a strain of the coronavirus thought to be more contagious than previous mutations. Determined to protect the health of the cast and audience, Walker adjusted the staging to ensure the entire cast could easily inform audiences of the safety guidelines and monitor that masks are worn throughout the entire performance.
Such precautions actually fit the play’s hospital setting. With Vivian’s bed centerstage, the cast sits, masked and facing the audience. A projection screen hangs behind them on which words from John Donne’s poems appear, as well as quotes from the script in varying fonts, designed by Phoenix Lion.
Dressed in a hospital gown and socks, her head bald, Cronican never leaves the stage as Vivian narrates scenes of her medical treatment and revisits moments from her past. Along with significant moments from her academic career, we also witness her initial diagnosis, numerous X-rays and ultrasounds, even a pelvic exam performed by a former student.
As the dehumanizing elements of the medical system threaten to strip Vivian of her identity, leaving just her and her doctor’s last names, she turns to rapid-fire academic discussion, sometimes speaking over the doctors as she lectures the audience about the importance of a single comma in a poem. The intelligence—the wit of the title—serves as a shield against the increasing vulnerability of her body and her spirit. After all, she is, as she frequently reminds us, a top scholar on Donne’s metaphysical poetry.
One might assume that playing Vivian every night would provide a therapeutic release for Cronican. But, she said, the steely academic’s response to illness differs greatly from her own.
“It took us a really long time to figure out how I was going to open myself up enough that I could show the character’s unwillingness to open up,” Cronican said. “It’s a very complicated acting challenge. In rehearsals when I open up, I just start crying. We don’t want to create that situation where I’m so fragile all the time.”
Indeed, the line between drama and reality has nearly blurred at times. At some rehearsals it was challenging for Cronican to maintain the distinction between herself and her character, leaving her feeling raw and exhausted, she said. When I spoke with her after a recent evening performance, she was still wearing Vivian’s plastic hospital wristband.
Walker, who directs the show and plays the nurse Susie, is Cronican’s spouse and caregiver offstage as well. But it wasn’t until rehearsals began that Walker began to consider the effect the show was having on her.
“I’d been thinking this whole time, we need to take care of Erin,” said Walker. “I was having all these responses and difficulties, and I started to recognize in the middle of rehearsals: It’s not therapeutic just for Erin. It’s therapeutic for me and for Robin too,” Walker said. “The three of us have just been a mess throughout the rehearsal process. We’re all sitting in these situations that we know so well.”
Knowing them well doesn’t make them any easier. An especially poignant moment in the show for both Cronican and Walker takes place when Susie urges Vivian to consider her options if her heart stops. After spending 10 years with Walker, Cronican finds herself unable to look at her real-life partner as she speaks these lines.
“I can hear and feel [Walker] responding when [Susie says], ‘So what we need to talk about is what we do if your heart stops.’ I’m like, ‘I can’t look at Brynn. I can’t do it. Do not look.’ You hear Brynn’s voice catch. ‘No. Too much. Way too much.’”
This moment is closely shared by the audience, who are seated near the stage. The black box theatre provides an intimate setting for the play—an element Cronican and Walker kept in mind when preparing its final moments. Concerned for their own well-being as well as the audience’s, they adjusted the staging of when Vivian’s heart stops beating and the doctors attempt to resuscitate her. The two explored different concepts, ultimately deciding on one in which, though Cronican is not lying on the bed, it is clear that Vivian has died.
“Since that time is imminent for me, that might be a little emotionally traumatic for me,” Cronican said. They felt that the indirect staging “would be more emotionally healthy for me, but also perhaps for the audience as well, especially in such an intimate theatre. The more violence, the more trauma in an intimate space, the more devastating it is for the audience. So I thought we could create a little bit of remove and allow the audience to see me as a spirit or a life force that is not ending.”
Carey Purcell (she/her) writes about pop culture and politics for Vanity Fair, Politico and other publications, and blogs at CareyPurcell.com. She recently published her first book, From Aphra Behn to Fun Home: A Cultural History of Feminist Theater.
Creative credits for production photos: Wit written by Margaret Edson, directed by Brynn Asha Walker, produced by Brynn Asha Walker and Erin Cronican, with stage management by Mel Hardy, scenic/costume/prop design by Erin Cronican, lighting design by Scott Monnin, sound design by Brynn Asha Walker, and projection design by Phoenix Lion.
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