Correction: This story has been updated to clarify the changes happening at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company.
Bay Theatre Company Artistic Director Janet Luby says of “Wit,” Margaret Edson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, which opens at the theater Friday: “It holds your hand and it takes you somewhere that you don’t want to go, but you’re glad that you went.”
“Wit” is also set to open on Broadway early next year, starring Cynthia Nixon. The BTC production stars Helen Hayes Award-winner Rena Cherry Brown as Vivian Bearing, a 50-year-old English professor who realizes, as she is dying, that she led an incomplete life. Just before heading out to cut off her hair to take on the appearance of Bearing, a chemotherapy patient, Brown spoke about baring her soul and her body in her most trying theatrical endeavor.
You’re shaving your head in a few hours. Are you nervous?
I am a little nervous. For most of my life, I’ve had very long, full hair, and it was sort of a part of who I was. . . . But I’m looking forward to it because of everything I’ve heard about how it affects the performance of this particular play, and how it affects your life.
You play Vivian, a woman dying of ovarian cancer. How do you prepare for a role like this?
It’s without a doubt the most challenging role I’ve ever done. . . . It’s like you’re in this tunnel, in a very selective place where part of my day is just consumed with thinking about it [and] looking at blogs of women who have ovarian cancer.
It’s a lot to ask of an audience, to sit through a show about a woman dying of cancer.
Cancer is just the vehicle. It could have been anything. . . . It’s mostly about this person’s journey to grace. It’s her layers peeling off, how she learns, almost, you think, too late, all the lessons in life in that eight months of treatment that most of us build up over a lifetime.
What should audiences expect from the show?
It may be unpleasant to watch, but it also has humor. . . . And if you come out thinking it was only a play about cancer . . . I haven’t done my job.
Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company knows how to put on that show you’d take a date to if you wanted to make sure your date is cool and has a good sense of humor.
Artistic Director Howard Shalwitz wanted more. ‘‘Woolly is a leader in new plays,” he said “But for what?”
Last year, Shalwitz headed a year-long company task force addressing the issue — what is our goal, and how do we get there? — and came up with what he called “the first important structural change to Woolly in 25 years.”
Woolly’s original mission statement remains unchanged. The Company of artists is expanding beyond actors to include playwrights, directors and designers so as to facilitate a more collaborative process. The new company members, beginning this season, are: Colin K. Bills, lighting designer; Michael John Garcés, artistic director of Cornerstone Theater Company in Los Angeles; Misha Kachman, set designer for “A Bright New Boise”; Robert O’Hara, playwright and director of “Bootycandy” and other works; Emily Townley, “A Bright New Boise” cast member; and John Vreeke, “A Bright New Boise” director.
Projects will be constructed around members, each of whom will be involved in as many steps of the production process as possible. Collaboration will be a crucial component.
“What we’re trying to avoid is creating a set of circumstances where plays are written in a vacuum and could have been produced by anyone, anywhere,” said Miriam Weisfeld, director of artistic development. “We’re trying to stem the tide of total irrelevance, of new plays for the sake of new plays.”
After 174 performances over two runs, Arena Stage’s production of “Oklahoma!” is closing Sunday. You can catch its cast members in coming projects:
“Oklahoma!” role: Curly, Laurey’s love interest, cowboy-to-farmer convert.
What’s next: He’s heading to New York for a workshop of a new Broadway show, “Empire,” in which he plays Pomahawk, a Mohawk Native American. “It takes place around the stock market crash and the building of the Empire State Building,” Rodriguez said. “And there’s a love story involved.”
What he’ll miss most: “I love getting Hill Country BBQ. And it’s crazy to me that I can walk out of my apartment and . . . walk down the national Mall on the way to work.”
“Oklahoma!” role: Ali Hakim, the Persian peddler.
What’s next: A concert reading of Shakespeare Theatre Company’s “Boys of Syracuse”; he will be joined by “Oklahoma!” Music Director George Fulginiti-Shakar.
What he’ll miss most: “You become a family at the theater. Yeah, I know. It’s a cliched thing to say.”
“Oklahoma!” role: Will, the guy with his heart set on marrying Ado Annie.
What’s next: Williams is moving to New York, where he’ll be singing at a private event in Central Park alongside Kerry Butler, and is on the audition circuit: “At one callback I went to, everyone behind the table had seen ‘Oklahoma!’ ”
What he’ll miss most: “Walking down the street and having Pat Buchanan say hi. Or running into Barney Frank at Good Stuff Eatery.”
“Oklahoma!” role: Ado Annie, kissing bandit of the Oklahoma territory.
What’s next: The high school senior is gearing up for the college search — she plans on starting next fall — and begins rehearsals in January for “Hercules in Russia” at Doorway Arts Ensemble, in which she’ll play the Grand Duchess Tatiana, daughter of Czar Nicholas II.
What she’ll miss most: In typical Ado Annie fashion, she can’t choose just one thing. “I’m going to miss it all! These actors know me like no one else does.”
“Oklahoma!” role: Aunt Eller (since Aug. 9), neighborhood matriarch.
What’s next: Burrell is headed to the Alabama Shakespeare Festival in Montgomery, where she’ll be performing in a new piece based on Truman Capote’s “A Christmas Memory” from late November through Christmas Eve. In February, she’ll be in Philadelphia at the Walnut Street Theatre, workshopping a one-woman play she wrote about Ethel Waters, the blues singer.
What she’ll miss most: “Coming to Arena is like coming home to me. . . . And in Washington, there’s nothing you cannot do.”