Weber State Wit #12 Shawnee Johnson at Vivian Bearing and Judy Elsley as...
Judy Elsley, playing E. M. Ashford, reads a children’s book to a dying Vivian Bearing, played by Shawnee Johnson. (Courtesy of Lindquist College of Arts and Humanities)

Lines of metaphysical poetry biding the death of Death hang from the ceiling. Medical machinery and an uncomfortable hospital bed cover the stage. While that doesn’t seem like enough props, it’s plenty for Weber State University’s production of “Wit.”

For the second time this year, Shawnee Johnson will take the stage as Vivian Bearing, professor and scholar of metaphysical poetry and stage four metastatic ovarian cancer patient. Through the course of the play, Bearing and the audience learn what it means to have empathy and what is really important in life.

The cast and crew of “Wit” have been invited to perform as part of the Kennedy Center’s College Theater Regional Festival, which will be held at Dixie State University in St. George. Tracy Callahan, head of the acting and directing department and the director of the production, said it’s not unusual for WSU theatrical productions to be invited to perform at this particular regional festival.

“We’ve gone several times,” Callahan said. “I’m trying to think of a year we didn’t go. It’s an honor, but we just do good work and the Kennedy Center appreciates that and they’re trying to inspire young people to do good work.”

Judy Elsley, English professor and head of the honors department, participated in the production as Bearing’s professor and fellow poetry scholar. While Elsley said she enjoys theater, she earned a minor in theater during her undergraduate degree, Elsley said she’d never been involved in a production like this one before.

“When (Callahan) offered me the opportunity to read for this part, I was very eager to do it,” Elsley said. “Partly so I could work with her because I have so much respect her work and partly because I knew I would have the experience of going through all the steps that a professional production goes through, and that’s very interesting to me.”

Elsley also noted that she thinks it’s important to continually be stretching and trying new things.

“I think it’s important, whatever age we’re at, to keep expanding the perimeters of our lives and keep doing things that are just a little bit scary to us, so that we don’t let the stillness cramp us in our lives,” Elsley said. “Students are doing that all the time in every class they take and it’s good for me as a professor to be on the other side of that and to be a learner rather than a teacher.”

Elsley encouraged students to come to “Wit” and learn and be stretched just as she has.

Christie Denniston, director of Marketing and PR for the Lindquist College of Arts & Humanities, said she believes students can learn a powerful lesson in empathy from “Wit.” Especially with social issues like LGBT rights, Denniston thinks that students, no matter their age, can benefit from seeing “Wit” and learn how to better empathize with fellow students.

“It’s just a good reminder that at the end of the day, we’re all equal, and we’re all people,” said Denniston. “I think that’s a story for students, for families, for whoever wants to enjoy the show.”

“Wit” will be performed in the Eccles Theater of the Val A. Browning center for the Performing Arts Feb. 5-7 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are available online, over the phone and in person prior to the event. “Wit” contains brief nudity and is not appropriate for young audiences.


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