Wit: Theater Review

Joan Marcus
Cynthia Nixon
Cynthia Nixon’s unsparing performance makes Margaret Edson’s celebrated play a powerfully moving experience. 

Margaret Edson's Pulitzer-winning play, a funny, compassionate and ultimately devastating account of a brilliant poetry scholar succumbing to ovarian cancer, makes a superb vehicle for Cynthia Nixon in this fine Broadway production.

NEW YORK – A deserving winner of the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, Margaret Edson’s Wit is a work of delicately calibrated opposites. It pits detached clinical observation on one side against raw human emotion on the other, while somehow making dry humor and wrenching pathos travel hand in hand. In Lynne Meadow’s unerringly focused staging for Manhattan Theatre Club, and above all in Cynthia Nixon’s shattering performance, that balancing act is rendered with piercing accuracy.

Inspired by Edson’s experience working in a hospital oncology unit, Wit was an awards magnet in its original Off Broadway incarnation for Kathleen Chalfant in the demanding lead role of Dr. Vivian Bearing, a distinguished academic being treated for stage IV metastatic ovarian cancer. Emma Thompson played the role in 2001 in an HBO film directed by Mike Nichols. This revival marks the play’s first appearance on Broadway, returning Nixon to the same stage where she gave a Tony-winning performance in Rabbit Hole.

Nixon’s brittle intensity and cool intelligence make her an ideal match for the uncompromising Vivian, known for the rigorousness of her classes in 17th Century poetry, particularly the Holy Sonnets of John Donne. Looking like skin and bones in a hospital gown, her hairless head covered with a baseball cap, she addresses the audience throughout the ordeal of receiving eight months of chemotherapy at a university research hospital. But she doesn’t ask for empathy, the very notion of which seems foreign to her.

Sharing the basics of her condition in the play’s opening monologue, Vivian observes with mild disapproval that “irony will be deployed.” She appears put out that something so frivolous will factor in the telling of her story.

From the outset, it’s clear that words are of enormous importance to this woman, and she chooses them with care. Receiving the prognosis from her doctor, Harvey Kelekian (Michael Countryman), she latches onto key terms used to describe her disease, such as “insidious” or “pernicious,” admiring the thoroughness and exactitude of medical discourse.

Informing us that stages II and III of her cancer went undetected, Vivian adds that there is no stage V. “I think I die in the end,” she says in one of many instances where she discusses the workings of the play with amused candor. Underlining that she is looking in on the drama from outside, she adds, “They’ve given me less than two hours.”

What happens during that time – actually a terse hour and 40 minutes – is far more complex than the regrets, self-recrimination, redemption and release that often characterize terminal-illness dramas. Those elements do figure in the story to a degree. But what makes it so affecting is the sorrow of Vivian’s growing awareness that ultimately, neither science nor her formidable intellect can help her.

As someone who has devoted her life to the study of metaphysical poetry, she has done her share of contemplating mortality. In the first of two exquisite scenes with her academic mentor, Dr. E.M. Ashford (Suzanne Bertish), Vivian remembers an exchange from her student days. The imperious professor scorns the excessive punctuation used in Donne’s “Death be not proud” in an inferior edition, pointing out the beauty of a simple comma separating life from death everlasting.

Vivian notes with morbid fascination the process by which a lifelong scholar becomes the object of someone else’s passionate research. Dr. Kelekian’s internist, Jason (Greg Keller), is in many ways her perfect counterpart. One of her former students, he credits her classes with sharpening his analytical skills, something he nurtures far more assiduously than his bedside manner.

Jason’s professional detachment is countered by the compassion of Susie (Carra Patterson), the nurse who walks Vivian through her resuscitation options. Susie’s humanity places her at odds with the researchers’ desire to keep Vivian alive for as long as her tortured body will continue yielding knowledge.

Mirroring the economy and laser-like precision of Edson’s writing, Nixon conveys the realizations of Vivian’s self-examination with the subtlest of insights. The play avoids grand epiphanies. Instead, an incremental understanding illuminates Vivian as the scholar considers her life and work, both on their own terms and weighed comparatively against the methods of her medics.

Considering how little is revealed about Vivian’s nonprofessional life (she’s 47, unmarried, both parents deceased), the character’s multidimensionality is remarkable. Nixon makes Edson’s intoxication with words contagious. Parsing language is what she lives for – whether it’s Donne, or Beatrix Potter (in a lovely interlude in which Countryman doubles as five-year-old Vivian’s father) or grim medical jargon.

Without pushing for them, Nixon finds every laugh in Vivian’s spiky commentary and droll self-mockery. And when she finally concedes to the uses of kindness – a quality she has never held in high regard – the moment is devastating. Her stoicism for so much of the play is so persuasive that when she surrenders and howls in pain we feel her agony. Likewise her joy when Susie inadvertently causes her to erupt in a stream of laughter that rings with gratitude.

There’s strong, understated work from the supporting cast, particularly Patterson, Countryman and Keller, who makes the brilliant Jason less cold than obsessive. Bertish merits special praise. Dr. Ashford is the one visitor who comes to the hospital to see Vivian, and the unsentimental tenderness of that scene is heartbreaking.

Meadow’s tight direction is attuned as much to what’s unsaid as to what’s being spoken. Her fluid scene-to-scene and past-to-present transitions are aided immeasurably by Santo Loquasto’s unfussy set and Peter Kaczorowski's lighting, conjuring sterile hospital environments out of simple structures against a black void. In every detail, the production is crisp and precise yet emotionally penetrating, just as the play and its central character demand. It’s an uncommonly stirring piece of theater.

Venue: Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, New York (runs through March 11)

Cast: Cynthia Nixon, Suzanne Bertish, Michael Countryman, Greg Keller, Carra Patterson, Pun Bandhu, Jessica Dickey, Chiké Johnson, Zachary Spicer

Director: Lynne Meadow

Playwright: Margaret Edson

Set designer: Santo Loquasto

Costume designer: Jennifer von Mayrhauser

Lighting designer: Peter Kaczorowski

Sound designer: Jill BC Du Boff

Presented by Manhattan Theatre Club