For those who might enter the theater not knowing this is a play about cancer, the title betrays its seriousness. The name's alternate, W;t, alludes to questionable punctuation in Donne's 17th-century sonnets. In an early scene, Vivian reflects on an episode when she, as a graduate student in literature, discussed whether a semicolon or comma breaks the final line of "Death, Be Not Proud." The story doesn't lighten up from there. Rather, it's peppered with references to God, forgiveness, salvation, and bits of "Divine Poems." The play, set in an academic hospital, unfolds in just 100 minutes. Those might seem long but for the intensity and relevance to the modern patient's experience.
An oncology fellow, Dr. Jason Posner, is assigned to Vivian's case. The young doctor's refrain, "Gotta go," will be familiar to anyone who's been on the receiving end of physicians' rounds in a hospital. He seems eager to leave her room whenever he enters. The two connect on a personal level, briefly, just before he performs a brutal pelvic exam on stage. Jason mentions to Vivian that he was a student in her literature class. Later, upon her asking, he reveals a bit about why he chose oncology and tells her of his research ambitions. But mainly he avoids talking with his patient. He doesn't struggle to communicate with her, mainly because he doesn't seem to want to do know her.
The senior, more formal oncologist, Dr. Kelekian, shares Vivian's uncompromising posture about attention to detail and precision in language. Both are caught up in jargon. Edson, the playwright, parallels the complexity of words in metaphysical poetry with the daunting language of medicine. "Why does Donne make everything so complicated?" Vivian recalls one of her students asking. The student continues: "[M]aybe he's scared, so he hides behind all this complicated stuff, hides behind this wit."
Edson's point, as I understand it, is that the doctors keep their minds occupied with science and technical information to avoid thinking about hard, commoner issues -- like life and death -- that occupy patients' minds. At another level, they might employ jargon to separate themselves from patients, as if they fear crossing that barrier between being healthy and being, not.
Later on, Jason speaks with the nurse about the "puzzle" of John Donne's poetry. He says:
Listen, if there's one thing we learned in Seventeenth-Century Poetry it's that you can forget about all the sentimental stuff. Enzyme Kinetics was more poetic than Bearing's class. Besides, you can't think about that meaning-of-life garbage all the time or you'd go nuts.
And this is the problem for the audience, for cancer doctors -- who in their real work suffer a high level of burnout -- and maybe for a public this is now so exposed to the subject. Oncology is taxing. It's costly and unpleasant, unbearable for some.