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. (Kathleen Chalfant) 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 fifty, 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 companions...in 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.
To embody the character's "Wit" properly, this play would need an actress to match, and it has one of rare intellect and courage in Kathleen Chalfant. Her line readings--her understanding of the precise inflective nuances in language that power this character--are impeccable; and the naked humanity that she must eventually expose (in every sense of that phrase) is equally uncompromising. Many stars will clamor to do this role...but if you want that genuine sense of discovery, as well as (to steal a phrase Richard Dysart once used about playing the Coach in "That Championship Season") the opportunity to see the first person to sleep with the role--who was instrumental in defining it--see "Wit" while you can still see Ms. Chalfant.
Under the fluid direction of Derek Anson Jones, there is surprising humanity in other characters too, 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 Alec Phoenix), and the self-deprecating nurse who is perhaps the one person on earth who can get away with calling Vivian "sweetheart" (Paula Pizzi), we gain insights into personal viewpoints we might otherwise take for granted. Doing stalwart double duty in two less gratifying, but equally revealing, roles, is musical theatre veteran Walter Charles, as Vivian's senior physician and--in a flashback--her father. Helen Stenborg as a colleague with Brian J. Carter, Daniel Sarnelli, Ali Steinberg and Lisa Tharps as students/technicians, round out the cast.
"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. Its like doesn't usually show up so early in the season, though. Here's hoping it's a harbinger of things to follow. And here's hoping, too, that its combative heroine moves to a larger, open-ended venue, and gets to navigate that final two hours many hundreds of times before its New York run at last succumbs with her...
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