By Isa Goldberg/Chief Theater Critic
“Cancer is the only thing I ever wanted.” Jason (Greg Keller) announces confidently. That is the conversational banter professor Bearing hears on her deathbed from her ex-student, now a research doctor at the university hospital where she is being treated.
Margaret Edson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, “Wit,” deals with essential matters – life and death – with great simplicity. It is as much about the advanced metastatic ovarian cancer riddling Vivian Bearing’s (Cynthia Nixon’s) body as it is about the Holy Sonnets of John Donne that nurture her intellect.
One reason “Wit” is so enthralling is that Edson makes Donne’s poetry as vivid to us as the action in a hospital emergency room. In fact, the contrast between modern medicine’s dehumanization of life and the religious philosophy of the metaphysical poets makes for a scorching message here.
The play first garnered attention in 1999 when Kathleen Chalfant originated the role Off Broadway. Chalfant embodied the selfless tough-minded qualities of the senior scholar who gradually yields to suffering and loss with amazing aplomb. Emma Thompson reprised the role for a television production. For “Sex and the City” star Cynthia Nixon the role is also transcendent.
As Vivian, Nixon tells the audience early in the play, “They’ve given me less than two hours.” Of course, we all know where this is going. But the actor takes us on the trajectory to death with finely measured intelligence, muscling every word with clarity, forcing every moment into her own consciousness and ours. In fact, Vivian is such a detached and scholarly individual that this seems natural to her. It involves just the kind of objectivity that she taught Jason, the research doctor who now studies her disease with little concern for her.
Indeed it is Vivian’s acceptance, her ability to find spiritual fulfillment that makes “Wit” a theatrical treasure. As in Donne’s Holy Sonnets, the action of the play is toward salvation. And in that regard, the ending is actually surprising, uplifting even.
While Nixon is on the stage almost all of the time, and talking throughout most of the play’s 100 minutes, she is supported by a finely tuned ensemble, especially Michael Countryman who doubles as the chief oncologist and as Vivian’s father when she was five years old. Greg Keller (Jason) has a stuffed up nasal sounding voice that suits his confident ease in drawing shallow conclusions. But his brusque behavior is largely more comic than cruel. Carra Patterson, on the other hand, portrays the nurse whose empathy enables Vivian to assert a modicum of self-determination.
The cleansed banality of the hospital rooms by Santo Loquasto with grey–white walls and columns amidst an undefined space – speaks to the environment. Disease and medicine can live together here, even if humans can’t.
Lynne Meadow steers the play delicately. The production affirms that “Wit,” the only play Margaret Edson ever wrote, is truly a work of inspiration.
Photos: Joan Marcus
Carra Patterson, Chiké Johnson, Greg Keller, Zachary Spicer, Cynthia Nixon, Michael Countryman, Suzanne Bertish, Pun Bandhu, Lynne Meadow, and Jessica Dickey.
“Wit” is a limited engagement at the Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 West 47th Street through March 11th. For the performance schedule and tickets, call 212-239-6200, go to Telecharge.com or visit the box office.
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