‘Wit” opened to great acclaim Off Broadway in 1998. This was a stunning playwriting debut for its author, Margaret Edson, even as it brought its star, Kathleen Chalfant, to the front ranks of American actors. Many fine actors have since played the central role, Vivian Bearing, Ph.D., including Trenton’s Judith Light, who replaced Chalfant during the play’s original run. That it has remained Edson’s only play doesn’t diminish our admiration for her talent or the inspiration that enabled her story to take dramatic form. The Manhattan Theater Club is presenting this remarkable play on Broadway starring Cynthia Nixon, and she is giving a stupendous performance, one that resonates with Nixon’s unique brand of skittish demeanor.
Notwithstanding Edson’s college degrees in history and literature, it is the experience she had in the cancer inpatient unit of a research hospital that inspired her to write an incredibly moving and perceptive play. Nixon, who may be best known for her role in the HBO series “Sex and the City,” has had a long and distinguished career (beginning at the age of 14) as a stage actor and is the winner of many theater awards and accolades. But her performance as Vivian, a 50-year-old professor of 17th century poetry who has just been told she has fourth stage metastatic ovarian cancer, affords her another role that she has made her very own.
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 qualified spokesperson for Donne’s metaphysical exploration of the eternal interplay of life and death makes her certainly in the author and Nixon’s 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.
All of this unfolds as we see her life come to its conclusion, rapturously devised on its own terms. Throughout the play, 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 are as ruefully wry as they are 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 (Michael Countryman, who also plays Bearing’s father) as well as his younger associate (Greg Keller), a former student of hers, on his overly casual approach to a pelvic exam. In the illumination of Nixon’s performance, Bearing is fearlessly and amusingly condescending as she takes note of the doctor’s misuse of English grammar. How skillfully Nixon extracts the humorous subtext from a frightful phrase like “insidious cancer with pernicious side effects.”
Under the perceptive direction of Lynne Meadow, Nixon nails every conflicted and contrary feeling she has in response to the understandably unemotional attentiveness by the hospital staff. This gives her the opening to make a funny line like “My treatment imperils my health,” equally heartbreaking. Her response to a stupid question from a doctor (“How do you feel today?”) is priceless in the way she obliterates with a look the shallowness of the question.
While a compassionate nurse (Carra Patterson) 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 designer Santo Loquasto’s simple and clinical environment, Nixon never lets us forget Bearing’s skill with the quip and the comeback as she finds herself ultimately betrayed by 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, as well as the transporting affection she earns from an equally stern teacher (a lovely performance by Suzanne Bertish).
Although the climactic scene is no longer the shocker it was for those who know the play, it will remain forever as an illuminating vision of a proud life lived. ***
“Wit,” through Sunday, March 11, Manhattan Theater Club at the Samuel J. Friedman Theater, 263 West 47th Street $57 to $116. 212-239-6200.