February 1, 2012

"Wit" Satisfies the Heart, Head—and Soul

One of the big mysteries of the recent theatrical past is why Margaret Edson hasn’t written more plays.  Wit, the first—and only one—she wrote was the surprise hit of the 1998-1999 season, won the Pulitzer Prize for best drama and was turned into an Emmy-winning HBO movie directed by Mike Nichols and starring Emma Thompson. It's now making its Broadway debut in a lovely revival at the Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre. 

At the time of the original production, Edson, then a 37-year-old kindergarten teacher, told interviewers that she was working on another play. But there’s been no sight of it over the last 14 years.   

Instead, Edson has focused on her day job (she now teachers 6th grade in Atlanta) and on raising two sons with her partner Linda Merrill.  She says she has no plans to do another play.   

That may be good for her students and her family but it’s a true loss for theater lovers.  Because Wit is a wonderfully crafted piece of work. 

Edson based it on her earlier experiences as a clerk on a cancer ward. Its main character is Vivian Bearing, a tough-as-tarmac literature professor who specializes in the work of the 17th century metaphysical poet John Donne, the creator of the immortal phrase, Death, be not proud.” 

The play opens as Vivian, dressed in hospital gowns and wearing a baseball cap to cover a completely bald head, walks onstage and announces to the audience that she has Stage 4 ovarian cancer and probably will, by the end of the play, die. 

Vivian continues to narrate the play over the next 100 minutes, as she undergoes grueling experimental treatments and develops a more visceral appreciation for life.  It all sounds grim and cliché.  But it ain’t.

Wit lives up to its title and is filled with humor.  It’s also erudite, weaving its way through both the metaphorical language of Donne’s poetry and the clinical jargon of medical research with an engagingly nimble deftness. 

And while its subject matter is familiar from legions of TV doctor shows, Lifetime movies and Oprah novels, it somehow manages to sidestep the bathos that mires so many of them in sentimentality.

But that doesn’t mean the play isn’t affecting. As almost everything—her autonomy, her dignityis stripped from Vivian, Wit offers true catharsis. When I saw the play back in ‘98, several people in the audience actually put their heads in their hands and sobbed openly. 

Part of the reason they—and Iwere so moved was the sensational performance by Kathleen Chalfant, whose transformation over the course of the play was made all the more effective by her initially impregnable bearing (pun intended, I suppose). 

Cynthia Nixon, a stage vet since she was a kid but most famous for her role as Miranda, the brainy one in "Sex and the City," is now playing Vivian in the current production and she’s made of different stuff. 

Nixon’s Vivian comes across as more shy than intimidating. An eagerness to please pokes out beneath the brusqueness the role requires her to affect. I worried at first that she might be too soft to play the part but Nixon, herself a cancer survivor, finds her own way. 

She is aided by a strong supporting cast (particularly Cara Patterson as a sympathetic nurse) but the weight of the play is on Nixon’s shoulders and under the sure-handed direction of the MTC’s artistic director Lynne Meadow (who has also successfully battled cancer) she bears it with affecting grace.

“It works on so many levels,” my friend Mary Anne said as we made our way out of the theater.  Indeed it does, and if you love smart theater as much as I do, you’ll make your way to see Wit.

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