nytheatre.com review by David Ian Lee
January 28, 2012
Margaret Edson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play Wit owes a few genes of narrative structure to epic mythology as extenuated by Joseph Campbell. As with The Odyssey, road movies, and every underdog sports story, Edson’s Hero is on a Journey, in pursuit of an all but unattainable goal. Though her Hero never arrives at the destination intended—to defeat by way of mental compartmentalization the metastasized cancer laying waste to her bones—there is instead a discovery of something far more profound.
Attendees of Wit will know from the very beginning that Vivian Bearing, Ph.D (Edson’s loquacious Hero) cannot survive, yet this information in no way hampers delight in sharing her life’s final months-long journey. Part of Wit’s conceit is that Dr. Bearing—a reluctant protagonist and conceptualist to her story—comments meta-theatrically on the action of the play. In the show’s opening soliloquy, Dr. Bearing announces that she has “been given two hours to live.” Such sardonic wryness—such wit—is representative of Bearing’s voice: A hyper-articulate cocoon of self-regard that is surprisingly funny and disarming. Manhattan Theatre Club’s current production of Wit is possibly this season’s funniest play about a woman dying of cancer.
Edson’s plot is admirably efficient. Diagnosed with Stage IV ovarian cancer, Dr. Bearing is admitted to an unnamed University Hospital to undergo an aggressive, experimental eight month course of chemotherapy. Her blood and bones riddled with malignancy and her immune system compromised by the very medicine intended to spare her life, Dr. Bearing’s condition deteriorates. As she combats the physical pain of her illness and an awareness that life’s thread is diminishing, memories trip rearward. We see in flashbacks the origins of her love for words, and her steely determination to become the preeminent scholar of the works of English metaphysical poet John Donne (“Death, be not proud, though some have called thee/ Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so!”). Dr. Bearing seeks profundity in the efforts of scholarly thought, and in so doing believes she has found her purpose in life.
And so, the Hero’s Journey: Dr. Bearing wills her thorny intellect—within which all vulnerabilities and compassion have long been sheathed—to protect her from the ravages of cancer and the side effects of its intended cure (including impersonal doctors, degrading pelvic exams from former students, and the realization that her survival is less regarded than the data offered by her death). But wit cannot save Dr. Bearing’s life or her soul.
Wit stars Cynthia Nixon as Vivian Bearing, Ph.D. Driving what at times seems like a solo show supported by addendum dramatis personae, Nixon is riveting. Shorn of her characteristic auburn locks and looking decidedly thinner than in recent memory, Nixon as Dr. Bearing has a taut pallor, yet the actress’s beauty and intelligence have merely been attuned; the soft vibrancy of the eyes and the playful ripple of the voice solicit compassion for a character that could otherwise trip into stridency. The humor Nixon brings to her performance is perhaps the most contributive element to the success of this production, and the greatest reason I wanted to follow Dr. Bearing.
Director of Wit and artistic director for Manhattan Theatre Club Lynne Meadow has crafted a lean, economical presentation that moves casually from location to location (facilitated by way of a turntable and occasional projected images; here is yet another ingenious set design by Santo Loquasto). In addition to Nixon as Dr. Bearing, Meadow gleans fine performances from her cast. Of note is Greg Keller, who is outstanding as Jason Posner, M.D., a callow medical fellow assigned to Dr. Bearing. He is in many ways a mirror of his patient, so focused on his own interests as to exclude the rest of the world.
As Susie Monahan, R.N., B.S.N, Carra Patterson brings clarity and warmth to the nurse who becomes Dr. Bearing’s closest ally. In an exquisite moment culminating several story threads, Dr. Bearing and Nurse Monahan—Vivian and Susie—share a popsicle and an exposing conversation. It is a superb moment for both, yet the cathartic laugh that follows is compliments of Patterson.
Again, not enough can be made of how unpretentiously, effortlessly funny this production of Wit is. While Edson’s play is certainly clever and rife with comedic potential, Meadow has evidently made the wise decision of leaning in favor of laughter. That spoonful of sugar goes a long way towards humanizing Dr. Bearing, and transcending the pathos of her final moments. Dr. Bearing’s death is not so much tragic as it is liberation from withered bounds, an opportunity of discovery where wit and grace fly unfettered.
Wit first played in New York in 1998 in a production imported from Long Wharf Theater, featuring Kathleen Chalfant as Dr. Bearing. A television movie starring Emma Thompson followed. Neither iteration was singled out for riotous hilarity. Knowing that Edson made slight amendments to her text when Meadow proposed Nixon for the role of Dr. Bearing, it is not improper to suggest that with this performance audiences might see a more specifically realized version of Edson’s vision. Nixon’s body of work qualifies her as a comedienne, and hers was wise, wise casting, indeed. Lesser productions of Wit could imagine Dr. Bearing’s drollness as an honorable coping mechanism: Drifting towards eternity, we are to admire the pluck that gives Dr. Bearing her bearings. While this approach has certain sentimental nobility, it ultimately robs an audience of Dr. Bearing’s final evolution. Indeed, in MTC’s version, the Hero’s Journey is fulfilled, as Dr. Bearing rediscovers the humanity she had long ago abandoned to wit. There is nothing more profound about intellectual study for the sake of intellectual study than there is anything profound about cancer itself: At day’s end, cancer is nothing but the extra bits of us—those dividing, beguiling cells that mock and remind of mankind’s ability to adapt. Yet there is much profound about life, and a life shared in the company and laughter of others. Wit must be shared.