Corrections or additions?
This review by Simon Saltzman was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on
October 21, 1998. All rights reserved.
<169>Wit" is Margaret Edson’s first play and it’s
a stunner. Notwithstanding Edson’s college degrees in history and
literature, it is the experience she had on the cancer inpatient unit
of a research hospital that has inspired her to write an incredibly
moving and perceptive play. The theater season is barely begun, yet
I doubt whether any play will make a greater impact on the captive
mind and the responsive heart than "Wit." We are fortunate
that this Long Wharf Theater production has found a home in New York.
"Wit" stars the sublime Kathleen Chalfant, who plays Vivian
Bearing Ph.D., a 50-year-old professor of 17th-century poetry who
has just been told she has fourth stage metastatic ovarian cancer.
Although Chalfant has impressed us before in "Angels in
"Racing Demon," and "Phaedra in Delirium," she has
now what may be rightfully called the role of a lifetime.
As an impassioned devotee of the poet John Donne, and in particular
his Holy Sonnets ("Death be not proud"), Professor Bearing
is perceived as a stiff-necked, self-sufficient, autocratic teacher.
That she is also a priceless wit and a qualified spokesperson for
Donne’s metaphysical exploration of the eternal interplay of life
and death makes her, certainly in the author and Chalfant’s exemplary
care, a woman of unusual resources.
But "Wit" is not a morbid reflection of a single, middle-aged
woman who has been given a negative prognosis. Nor is "Wit"
out to exploit the pain, regrets, and sorrows that may be perceived
as inevitable reactions to illness. There is at the core of
the indomitable force of a willful provocateur determined, at all
costs, not to become a victim. As we see Bearing preparing herself
for what she knows will be a torturous ordeal, we also see her
prescription for addressing the inevitable pain and feelings of
through the expenditure of humor and hubris. This as we see her life
come to its conclusion, rapturously devised on her own terms.
Throughout the drama, which follows Bearing through eight weeks of
radical experimental and traditional cancer treatments, Bearing
a running commentary on the callous hospital staff and the ongoing
procedures that is as ruefully wry as it is often outrageously funny.
Wearing a hospital gown and a red baseball cap to cover her bald head,
Bearing pulls an I.V. unit around the stage as she shares with us
the last excruciating months of her life. An invasive, insensitive
office exam finds Bearing unafraid to challenge the oncologist (Alex
Phoenix), a former student of hers, on his overly casual approach
to a pelvic exam.
In the radiance of Chalfant’s performance, Bearing is fearlessly and
amusingly condescending as she takes note of the doctor’s misuse of
English grammar. How skillfully Chalfant extracts the humorous subtext
from a frightful phrase like "insidious cancer with pernicious
side effects." Under the sensitive direction of Derek Anson Jones,
Chalfant makes a funny line like, "My treatment imperils my
equally heartbreaking. Her response to a stupid question from a doctor
("How are you feeling today") is a priceless double take.
While a compassionate nurse (Paula Pizzi) becomes Bearing’s
she also acts as a catalyst for an increasingly suffering Bearing
to consider the essence of her intellectually guarded life as a loner.
Within set designer Myung Hee Cho’s cold, clinical environment,
never lets us forget Bearing’s skill with the quip and the comeback
as she finds herself ultimately betrayed by the intensifying bouts
with fever, chills, nausea, and exhaustion.
Flashbacks reflect on this unusual and valiant woman who fell in love
with words, but whose salvation would ultimately be filtered with
a memory of a former student’s unwittingly dispensed wisdom, and the
transporting affection she earns from an equally stern teacher (a
magnificent cameo by Helen Stenborg). There is a climactic scene that
may be one of the most tender in all modern dramatic literature. This
is a theatrical event not to be missed. HHHH
— Simon Saltzman
Extended through November 22.
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