Corrections or additions?
This review by Simon Saltzman was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on
October 13, 1999. All rights reserved.
Broadway Review: `Wit’
It was about 30 years ago when an otherwise cheerful
Trenton girl in her early teens arrived at Dr. Levine’s dental office
with a terrible headache. When the dentist discovered that she needed
a small filling, his chair-side assistant was instructed to give the
suddenly apprehensive girl an Anacin tablet. Five minutes later, when
asked if she had taken it, the girl answered "yes" and opened
her hand. The tablet was still in her hand, but a small button on
the front of her sweater that she had been twisting was missing.
"Oh, my God, I’m going to die! I swallowed the button," the
girl screamed, as the dentist shouted to his assistant, "Run across
the street for some bread. Tell her to eat some bread."
"Why do I need to eat bread?" the girl wanted to know. "You
tell her that everything will come out all right," said the dentist,
leaving it for his assistant to explain the rest, as he hastily left
The young girl had no way of knowing that Diane Dixon, the comforting
dental assistant, would be writing a feature story about her just
13 years later. Dixon had become a staff writer for the Trentonian.
The girl, Judith Light, the daughter of a Trenton businessman, who
grew up on Stacy Avenue (no relation to the Princeton family of actor
Karl Light), had performed as a teenager in Trenton’s Theater in the
Park, and earned a degree at Carnegie-Mellon University. When Dixon
set out to write about her, Light was just beginning to gain recognition
as a professional actor. And before much longer, she became widely
known to television viewers across the nation for her roles in "Who’s
the Boss?" and "One Life to Live."
Dixon, who has kept in touch with Light over the years,
is founder and managing director of the Theater Guild of New Jersey.
She recently visited with Light backstage on Broadway after attending
"Wit," the Pulitzer Prize-winning play that is bringing the
Trenton-born actor further accolades.
"I don’t remember a play that left me as speechless, or a performance
that has swept me away so completely," Dixon tells me in our phone
conversation. Praising Light’s continuing community spirit and her
work with such organizations as project Angel Food, Heart Strings,
and the NAMES Project, and her ongoing support in the fight against
AIDS. Dixon says that this is one woman who has made it big and still
proudly tells anyone who asks, "I’m from Trenton, and proud of
It seems redundant to say what an extraordinary and powerful play
is Margaret Edson’s "Wit." Although I saw "Wit" twice
last year during the time it was receiving such honors as the Pulitzer
Prize for Drama, the Drama Desk Award, the Drama Critics Circle Award,
and other citations, there was a good reason for a third visit. Light,
probably best know for her five-year stint in the role of Karen Wolek
in the television soap, "One Life to Live," and as Angela
Bower, the high-powered advertising executive in "Who’s the Boss?",
a sitcom that she continued with for its entire eight-year run, has
replaced "Wit’s" original star Kathleen Chalfant.
In a daring, and what will undoubtedly prove to be a career-altering,
move, Light has assumed the pivotal role of the professor of English
poetry who undergoes treatment for ovarian cancer. The two-time Emmy
Award winner may not be "the boss" in this play, but she is
in full control of her complex character. Although Light has had success
playing a string of damsels in distress in many made-for-TV films,
her stage appearances, on Broadway in "The Doll’s House" with
Liv Ullman, and Off-Broadway in "As You Like It," and "Richard
III," could be said to have prepared her for this most demanding
"Wit" plays in New York through January 2, 2000, at which
point Light takes the show on a national tour that opens on February
1 at Boston’s Wilbur Theater, proceeds to the Kennedy Center, Washington,
D.C., plays in Florida, and winds up in San Francisco, where it can
be seen at the Curran Theater, May 3 to June 4.
As Dr. Vivian Bearing, "Wit’s" autocratic, no-nonsense, fiercely
witty, self-sufficient, single woman who finds she has to suddenly
follow the orders and procedures prescribed by a team of equally analytical
doctors and researchers, Light is giving the performance of a lifetime.
She can be proud of this, too.
While Chalfant’s memorable performance certainly made an indelible
impression, anyone that visits or, as they should, re-visits "Wit"
with Light in the lead, will see a mesmerizing show. If Light brings
a sharper, more confrontational edge to this awesome figure of authority
and scholarship than did Chalfant, it only helps to make the scenes,
during which she expounds on the most profound and didactic subjects,
the mysteries behind the language and punctuation in John Donne’s
metaphysical poetry, even funnier than before. But I was particularly
astonished by Light’s extraordinary physicality, in the way she uses
her body, and later, when she is in mortal combat, the way she conveys
the very real pain of her cancer.
The author makes it easy to respond to the wry and witty side of Bearing’s
brusque personality, who gives a real workout in the classroom with
her students and in the hospital with the equally unfeeling and condescending
doctors. Light makes us work to like her and to empathize with the
unsentimental brilliance of this wounded woman of letters. Even though
Light must follow the prescribed dramatic arc of the play, it is stunning
to see how the initial power and intimidation of her steely glare
finds a real foe, as Bearing’s mental and physical defenses succumb
to the increasingly callous, invasive, and dehumanizing hospital procedures.
With the exception of Paula Pizzi, who continues to radiate as the
caring nurse who helps Bearing see the value of simplicity when the
complexity of life become overwhelming, the rest of the cast is new.
William Cain gives us the expected perspective of the emotionally-detached
oncologist, and as Bearing’s equally distanced father. As Bearing’s
old professor, Sally Parrish breaks our hearts with her few well-chosen
words, and a bedtime story told to her former pupil who she holds
in her arms in the hospital bed. Grant Snow is terrific as the young,
research-obsessed physician who was once Bearing’s pupil.
At the end of the play, a transcendent moment as Bearing is bathed
in an intense white light, we are awakened to the need in everyone’s
life for tenderness. But most of all we realize what Light reminds
us in a note in the Playbill: "When we get out of denial of death,
there’s a moment of incredible transformation and glory. It reminded
me of a saying — and I don’t remember whose it was — that
`We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual
beings having a human experience.’ This is what this play is about
for me." And what an experience "Wit" is. And what a performance
we are getting from Judith Light. HHHH
— Simon Saltzman
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