By Margaret Edson
Directed by Lynne Meadows
Starring Cynthia Nixon
A Production of The Manhattan Theatre Club
Samuel J. Friedman Theatree

Reviewed by David Spencer

A portion of the text below has been culled from my reviews of Wit’s original off-Broadway run.

In my junior year of university, when I was writing for Newsbeat, Queens College, I did a feature on the memorial service held in honor of the gifted actor and teevee personality Larry Blyden, who had died suddenly, startlingly, in a car crash in Morocco. As I recall, the first speaker was dramatist Paddy Chayefsky--who, ironically, would himself pass on not much more than a year later. His opening remark is one that has stayed with me--and haunted me--for over two decades. Here's what it was:

"You never thought about Larry as destructible."

Substitute the name of your choice for Mr. Blyden's--anyone whose spirit you find indomitable, or vibrant, or indispensable. Somehow we never think of these people of what they are, physiologically: fragile "bags of mostly water," as a Star Trek alien once described humanity.

But in fact, the strength of the spirit is rarely enough to stave off death when, by accident or biological imperative, it becomes insistent...and that insoluble conflict is at the heart of "Wit", the strikingly powerful first play by Margaret Edson, a 37-year old elementary school teacher based in Atlanta.

Striking describes the play right at the start: even before the houselights go fully down, our heroine, Vivian Bearing, PhD. (Cynthia Nixon) enters the Kabuki theatre-style hospital set from the side of the house, wheeling her I.V. drip with her. She wears two flimsy night gowns, one atop the other, and on her head, a red baseball cap, a perfunctory acknowledgment of her baldness beneath; one must think of it that way rather than as any attempt to actually camouflage what chemotherapy has done to her, for almost immediately, we understand that this is a woman who has no patience for pretense. Her exaggerated greeting--"Hi! How are you today?"--is proof enough of that, once we understand she is lampooning the social inanities of the medical profession who treat patients with cancer. Patients such as herself. She has been diagnosed with stage four ovarian. How bad is that? Put it this way: there is no stage five. Professor Bearing explains to us as soon as we make her acquaintance that she understands that she is a character in a play; that for us, the next--and last--eight months of her life will go by at an accelerated pace. In real time, "I have less than two hours."

A practiced and, in her way, comfortable curmudgeon of 45 (this has been re-tooled for Ms. Nixon; as originally played by Kathleen Chalfant, Vivan Bearing was 50), she teaches classic poetry, with a special emphasis on the evocative, dense contradictions of John Donne, whose work seems tortured by the unresolved conflict between his rational mind and the unknowability of God and death. Unmarried and without surviving family, Vivian is very much a contemporary soul mate, though she would not presume, herself, to identify herself thus. It is enough for her to recognize the portions of his work that serve as ironic editorial commentary on what she's going through. At first, she's almost abstracted from the problem, noting the violations that medical terminology inflicts on her sense of precise language; and that, indeed, medical practitioners inflict upon her sense of dignity. (Her first moment of vulnerability that intellect cannot mitigate, is having a pelvic examination conducted by a former student. And at that, a former student who, his hand inside her, feeling the severity of the cancerous mass, lets out a shocked, unguarded, "Jesus Christ!") But as the illness becomes more serious, language, wit and quick perception become inadequate protection...even inadequate the face of the betrayals of her body, her gradual infantilization, her humiliating need for parenting,...and the spectre of the frightening void beyond.

What's so compelling about "Wit"--other than the inherent drama of impending death--is the juxtaposition of heroine and circumstance. Vivian wouldn't be caught dead (pardon the expression) in a maudlin "Terms of Endearment"-style scenario, because she is hard-wired not to default to mystification, sentiment or spirituality. Rather, she insists, for as long as she's able, to keep viewing the world with unromantic candor. And in so doing she--and her creator, Margaret Edson--renders a very old scenario (the fatal disease drama) freshly realized, invigorating...and at the end, for some, devastatingly moving.

Though the current Broadway revival is delivered with solid, professional assurance, and will likely satisfy most viewers new to the play, it may seem just a little less substantial to those who remember seeing it with Kathleen Chalfant and/or, later, Judith Light. Ms. Nixon is a good and gifted performer, but she doesn’t really have gravitas, not in her bearing (no pun intended), nor in her voice which lives in the higher part of the female register—soprano speech, if you’ll allow. She delivers a fine approximation of a woman who is a strict, meticulous academic, but somehow it’s not authentic enough in that right-down-to-the-toes way of an actress so right for a role that she can own it. Chalfant and Light could give us the “deep alto” curmudgeon; the old soul who has chosen to embrace singleness and never call it loneliness; the uncompromising, plain-speaking academic for whom standards are standards that one chooses to meet or not meet—because such could be naturally extrapolated from those actress’ respective onstage personae. I don’t meant to say they are like Vivian Bearing in life (I have no idea), merely that they have the confluence of actors’ toolkit and simple heredity to walk onstage and be Vivian Bearing without having to play her. Ms. Nixon, on the other hand…is stretching her muscles and her range. Admirably and well, but noticeably. That said she carries the evening. She just doesn’t infuse it.

Something similar might be said of Lynne Meadows’ thoroughly capable direction. As with Ms. Nixon’s performance (and presumably in league with it), Ms. Meadow delivers the letter of the play with expert polish. What she doesn’t deliver enough of, though, is fine nuance (which was the hallmark of the original direction of Derek Anson Jones; the production had a number of signature mind/ear snapshot moments that  people who saw it can still recall). I don’t mean to say Ms. Meadows’ work lacks taste, balance or subtlety when needed; but it isn’t inspired.

This has a minor but notable effect on the supporting cast as well; without a lead actress to dominate as a sort of parent/authority figure—which to some extent, Vivian is, and like any parent facing the end, even a strict one, becoming more and more dependent upon her “children”—the younger actors deliver intelligently, sensitively and as needed…but the contrast is less dynamic. Still, there is surprising humanity in the young principals, who would at first seem to be merely functionaries of Vivian's odyssey. But as we get to know her former student and attending "fellow" (a young doctor played by Greg Keller), and the self-deprecating nurse who is perhaps the one person on earth who can get away with calling Vivian "sweetheart" (Carra Patterson), we gain insights into personal viewpoints we might otherwise take for granted. Doing stalwart double duty in two less showy, but equally revealing, roles, is Michael Countryman, as Vivian's senior physician and--in a flashback--her father. The most striking member of the supporting cast, though, is Suzanne Bertish as Vivian’s mentor and colleague. It’s surprising to find an actress of such international distinction in so small a role—it’s the equivalent of a star cameo—but she makes every second count, appearing first in a flashback, when Vivian, as a young student, meets her for the first time; and later as an old woman visiting Vivian on her death bed. Ironically, Ms. Bertish brings to her role the gravitas that would make her a splendid Vivian as well.

Lest any of this seem like a bad, or negative, review, that’s not my intent, nor is it my intent to dissuade you from attending. Wit is the kind of play that comes around two, maybe three times a season; a play so flabbergastingly theatrical and original that you find it affecting the way you breathe. It remains worth your notice and your time. I just wish you could see it at its wittiest…

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