Vivian Bearing, the play’s protagonist, is a fifty-year-old woman with stage-four ovarian cancer. She is also an indomitable force in the academic field of seventeenth-century poetry (particularly the sonnets of John Donne) and a professor in a university English department. The play begins in the oncology unit at the university hospital, where she is receiving an eight-week, experimental chemotherapy treatment. Her overseeing doctor is Dr. Harvey Kelekian, who is also a university professor, and the two have a lot in common, including their relentless work ethics and their bemusement at undergraduate students’ lack of academic motivation. Jason Posner, the most accomplished medical fellow in the oncology unit, is charged with administering much of Vivian’s care. He, too, has a work ethic and a passion for knowledge that mirrors Vivian’s. Coincidentally, Jason was once a student of Vivian’s, during a semester in which he challenged himself to ace the hardest classes on campus. Vivian admires Jason for his drive and sees her younger self in him, although she is often uncomfortable with their odd role-reversal in the context of the hospital; this time, her fate is in his hands.
Vivian oscillates between narrating the action of the play and acting in the scenes. As the narrator, she knows how the play—and her story—is going to end, but as her character-self, she does not. This separation between Vivian’s narrator-self and her character-self establishes the play’s dramatic irony, in which the audience knows that Vivian is going to die before her character-self does. As Vivian explains in various monologues, irony is also a major theme in Donne’s work, which is concerned with life’s “big questions” like death and God, but usually ends up losing itself in its own wit and intellectual quandaries.
Narrating the play also allows Vivian to present flashbacks of her life. In one flashback, she is diagnosed with cancer by Dr. Kelekian. In another, she is being admonished by her graduate school mentor, E. M. Ashford, about misunderstanding the punctuation in a John Donne sonnet. In another, her father, Mr. Bearing, is helping her read a book called The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies, which spurs her lifelong love of language.
Over the course of the play, Vivian gets sicker and sicker, both due to her extremely aggressive chemotherapy and due to her worsening cancer. She is thus forced to face the likelihood of her own impending death. This process is especially difficult for her because it requires her to change her mind about a few things, particularly her assumption that the pursuit of knowledge and intellectual excellence is the most valuable part of life. At the start of the play, she approaches her cancer diagnosis as if it were another intellectual problem to be solved. After all, she thinks, she is a respected scholar on metaphysical poetry, most of which takes on mortality as its theme—if she can conquer Donne’s poetics of death, she can handle the real thing. However, as her body and mind begin to fail her, and her days become more and more painful, she struggles to remain tough and brave.
Vivian’s attending nurse, Susie Monahan, comforts her as her cancer worsens, but Dr. Kelekian and Jason remain distant and only concerned with their research. They continue to insist that she receive the full dose of chemotherapy, and they never address her comfort and pain-management. To them, Vivian is a body that they can study rather than a human being. They are excited by the prospect of their research, which will be groundbreaking in their field, and they prioritize that over Vivian’s dignity. Before her illness worsened, Vivian admired this tenacity, but by the time she is nearing her death, she resents their coldness and detachment and seeks out Susie more and more. In the final days of her life, Vivian calls out to Susie, who brings her a popsicle and comforts her as she cries. They discuss what to do if Vivian’s heart stops, and she tells Susie that she wants to a DNR: a “Do Not Resuscitate” order.
In the play’s final scene, Vivian is visited by her old mentor, E. M. Ashford. E. M. offers to recite Donne for her, but Vivian (who is on morphine and barely coherent) groans a refusal. Instead E. M. reads a children’s book she has with her called The Runaway Bunny. After E.M. leaves, Jason enters and sees that Vivian isn’t breathing. He frantically calls a code team and gives her CPR, despite knowing her wish to not be resuscitated. Susie tries to stop him and halt the code team that enters and starts frantically working, but they only stop when Jason yells that he made a mistake. As the code team mutter to themselves about Jason’s grievous error and Jason whispers “Oh, God” to himself, Vivian gets out of bed, undresses, and stands naked and reaching for a distant light.