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This review by Simon Saltzman was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on

October 21, 1998. All rights reserved.

Review: `Wit’

<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

America,"

"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

"Wit"

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

personal

prescription for addressing the inevitable pain and feelings of

aloneness

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

provides

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

health,"

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

confidante,

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,

Chalfant

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

Wit, MCC Theater, 120 West 28 Street, 212-727-7765. $25.

Extended through November 22.


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