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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 room.

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."

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

of roles.

"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

Wit, Union Square Theater, 100 East 17 Street, 212-307-0400.

$39 & $49. Through January 4.

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