By Margaret Edson
Directed by Lynne Meadow
Manhattan Theatre Club at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, New York
Jan. 26-March 11, 2012
Plays are like people — none of them is perfect. That being said, Margaret Edson’s 1999 Pulitzer Prize-winning “Wit” is pretty damn near flawless. That’s my strongest takeaway from Manhattan Theatre Club’s revival of the play on Broadway, starring Cynthia Nixon under the direction of Lynne Meadow. Nixon plays fiftyish college English professor Vivian Bearing, who opens the show onstage alone in a hospital gown and a baseball cap and addresses the audience directly. She lets us know the play will be over in two hours, and with a droll matter-of-factness says, “It is not my intention to give away the plot, but I think I die in the end.”
Professor Bearing, we learn, has stage IV metastatic ovarian cancer, for which she undergoes an extremely toxic experimental chemotherapy treatment, and the play is, among other things, an unsparing and medically detailed depiction of that experience. From the initial diagnosis, which engenders disbelief and numbness, to the frank middle-of-the-night conversation with a savvy oncology nurse about the consequences of signing or not signing a “do not resuscitate” order, whether suffering humiliating side effects or being poked like a specimen by clumsy trainees during the teaching hospital’s grand rounds, Vivian narrates it all with the same cool, dry perspective. She considers herself an expert on life and death. “I am, after all, a scholar of Donne’s ‘Holy Sonnets,’ which explore mortality in greater depth than any other body of work in the English language.”
The play is also a rich, exhilarating, one could say Stoppardian lecture on language, literature, and the poetry of John Donne as viewed by an unmarried middle-aged lady schoolteacher. Even hooked up to an IV pole that she wheels around the stage, Vivian walks us through glimpses of her relationship with the father who turned her on to the power of words, the teacher who taught her exacting standards, and the students to whom she has attempted to transmit her fiercely cerebral yet passionate love for poetry. She is stern and severe, anything but warm and fuzzy. Dissecting with scholarly precision various editions of Donne’s best-known sonnet (“Death, be not proud”), she scornfully dismisses one for its “hysterical punctuation — suitable for Shakespeare, not Donne.”
How the bold certainty of a career academic interacts with the inevitable vulnerability of a terminal cancer patient could make for one of those egregious by-the-numbers dramas that make me want to (as Vivian so delicately puts it) “barf my brains out.” “Wit” bypasses the pitfalls of schematic melodrama through the sheer force of Edson’s writing, which is full of strong emotion scrubbed clean of sentimentality, often hilarious, and driven by a sly, confident theatricality astonishing in a playwright who has never written another play, either before or since. (See Mike Nichols’ well-meaning but flat film version for HBO, starring Emma Thompson, to gauge just how much the play loses without the presence of a live audience.)
I wouldn’t have thought that any production of “Wit” could come near the now-famous New York premiere in 1998, with its unforgettable performance by Kathleen Chalfant under the direction of the late Derek Anson Jones at the tiny MCC Theatre Off-Broadway. (It had a year-long commercial run at a larger off-Broadway theater, where Judith Light took over the leading role.) And ordinarily I wouldn’t have gone out of my way to see Cynthia Nixon onstage again; from seeing past performances, I had formed an opinion of her as craftsmanlike but unexciting. Wrong on both counts. Director Lynne Meadow has done an exceptional job, managing the theatrical manifestation of Vivian’s mercurial thought processes with fleetness and economy and casting the play very well. It would be easy to pound home Edson’s pointed contrast between the way male and female medical professionals treat patients (men obtuse and bad! women attentive and good!). But the detailed and warm performances of Michael Countryman as Vivian’s oncologist and Greg Keller as his attending physician and former student of Vivian’s don’t let you leap to such simplistic conclusions, even if the actress playing the nurse Susie, Carra Patterson, comes off as the quiet hero of the piece. Suzanne Bertish is a longtime favorite actress at Manhattan Theatre Club, and it’s great to see her back playing Vivian’s old professor, not too starchy to climb into the hospital bed to read “The Runaway Bunny” to her frightened friend.
And Nixon — well, she just knocks it out of the park. It’s remarkable how she draws the audience in by keeping her distance. She establishes a certain formality right off the bat, with a declarative delivery that’s both off-putting and theatrical. Her pale blank face and her cool blue eyes help her maintain the flintiness that escalates with her character’s fragility. The tension between those two qualities builds until the fear and dependency of her illness crack her wide open. The final scenes of the play are so simple, so stark, so recognizably, sadly human that they leave grown men unashamedly sobbing in their seats.