The Soul of ‘Wit’

If you go

What: “Wit”

Where: The Oakland Center for the Arts, 220 W. Boardman St., Youngstown

When: Friday, Saturday, April 30, May 1, 2, 7, 8

Tickets: Call (330) 746-0404

Place:Oakland Center for the Arts

220 W. Boardman St., Youngstown

Director Robert Dennick Joki steps out of his comfort zone


The Oakland Center for the Arts production of Margaret Edson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play “Wit” that opens Friday night for a three-weekend run almost didn’t happen.

When originally scheduled director John Cox dropped out, Oaklandites furiously scrambled to find a suitable replacement. Stepping into the fray — and effectively salvaging the Oakland season in the process — is Oakland mainstay Robert Dennick Joki.

For Joki, best-known for campy, gender-bending musicals such as “Reefer Madness” and “Bat Boy: The Musical,” the stark, emotionally fraught drama marks a remarkable sea change.

In a recent interview, Joki discussed his passion for the project and the circuitous path he took before finally landing the directorial nod.

Q. An award-winning drama such as “Wit” is definitely out of your perceived comfort zone, isn’t it?

A. If I hope to advance as an artist, I need to constantly challenge myself. Directing “Wit” has given me the chance to put aside the wacky costumes and dance numbers and return to my theatrical roots. It’s also given me the opportunity to work with some outstanding local talent. I’ve admired the work of (“Wit” lead actress) Molly Galano for years, and to actually be directing her is surreal.

There are days when I feel like a monkey telling a painter what brush to use (laughs). But she’s been enormously gracious and a complete joy to work with.

Q. Could you give us a thumbnail synopsis of the plot?

A. “Wit” is the story of Dr. Vivien Bearing, a renowned English professor who has spent years studying and teaching the brilliant metaphysical sonnets of John Donne. She’s diagnosed with terminal ovarian cancer, and during the course of her illness comes to reassess her life and work.

Q. What was it about the material that initially attracted you to it, and why did you fight so hard to direct?

A. When I learned that (John) Cox was unable to fulfill his obligation, I immediately offered to step in. My fear was that the job would go to someone who didn’t have a personal relationship with the script. Or, even worse, that the show would be taken off the schedule altogether.

The Oakland instead decided to do a regional search for a replacement director. I submitted a proposal and was lucky enough to get the job.

I first read “Wit” back in college. It was especially resonant to me because my mother was going through her second round of chemotherapy for breast cancer. At the same time, I was researching Elizabethan poetry as part of my English minor.

I became very interested in John Donne’s poetry. His sophisticated use of metaphor, irony, wit and paradox was the most complex and beautiful literature I’d ever read: the kind of thing you can get lost in for hours, even days. That — combined with what my mom was going through — made me fall in love with (Margaret) Edson’s script. I also loved the fact that a play about cancer and English literature could be so funny at times.

Q. Who’s appearing in the show?

A. Besides Galano, our cast includes Shaun Lipe, Joyce Jones, Tom Smith, Sam Luptak, Gerri Sullivan, Marisa Zamary, Jennifer Milligan, Meysha Harville and Nicole Zayas.

Q. As one of the more visually inventive directors on the community-theater scene, was there any particular design scheme/look you were aiming for?

A. My goal was to do with “Wit” what John Donne did with his poetry: i.e., to toggle back and forth between realism and the romantic. I’ve directed some of the scenes to be stark and true to life. Other times — particularly during the flashback scenes — I’ve used a more abstract, stylized approach.

As the play progresses and Vivien’s mind begins to fade, my hope is that the two styles meld together.

Q. Does “Wit” mark a turning point in your directorial career?

A. I’ll never entirely abandon campy musicals and drag shows because they’re a lot of fun to do. At the same time, I don’t want to be pigeonholed either. I want to be able to grow as an artist. I want to be able to direct anything.

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