Sunday, January 22, 2012

Seeking the Soul of 'Wit'

Cynthia Nixon stars in 'Wit'

See that woman dressed in a thin hospital gown, head shaved and covered with a baseball cap?  She is Vivian Bearing, whose surname ironically describes the dual nature of her current status. 

On the one hand, she has the regal bearing of a highly regarded scholar at the height of her career, admired by those in her academic circle and held in fear and trembling by the students in her metaphysical poetry class. This is an image she has cultivated for herself, one that she has lived with most satisfyingly for many years. 

Now, however, another meaning of her name has come into play, referencing the fact that Professor Bearing is bearing up under a terrible regimen of experimental chemotherapy, in the minuscule chance that it might beat back stage four ovarian cancer.  She has no choice; as she reminds the audience, “there is no stage five.”

This is the conceit of Wit, the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Margaret Edson, now in revival at the Manhattan Theatre Club at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre.  Whatever plans we may have for ourselves, life has a way of following its own course; however many layers of self-protective armor we wrap ourselves in, life has a way of stripping things down to the basics. 

At the play’s start, Vivian (Cynthia Nixon) puts on a brave front, using sarcasm and badinage to deal—or to avoid dealing—with her situation. She realizes, she says, that this is a matter of life and death, but “I know all about life and death” as a specialist in the metaphysical poetry of John [Death Be Not Proud] Donne. 

Enduring eight months of debilitating chemotherapy turns out to be rather more physical than metaphysical, however, and Vivian is forced to relinquish all vestiges of her own pride for the sake of survival.  And the woman who has always considered herself to be fiercely independent is now dependent on others—the condescending doctors (Michael Countryman and Greg Keller) who see her as little more than a means for collecting research data, and the nurse (Carra Patterson), who singularly shows her a degree of compassion. 

Through flashbacks, we get to see bits of Vivian’s life-before-cancer:  as a young child encouraged by her father to use and cherish her intellect; as a less-than-stellar student gaining her first knowledge of Donne from her mentor (Suzanne Bertish, perfect in a role that gives her the play’s most touching moment); and as a demanding professor giving her own students a hard time.

Ms. Edson, the playwright, who has determinedly remained in her career as an elementary school teacher, drew upon previous experience working in the cancer and AIDS unit of a research hospital and her own education as a literature major to create this powerful opus.  

Wit is not without its flaws—there is a confrontational scene regarding a “do not resuscitate” order that seems unnecessarily shoehorned in for dramatic effect, and the flashbacks don’t always add to our understanding of Vivian—yet the story itself is one that can and does resonate with audiences.  Death, after all, makes no exceptions.  We just hope for a more benign final journey than the one Vivian has to face.    
For Ms. Nixon and director Lynne Meadow, both of whom are breast cancer survivors, this first-time Broadway mounting of Wit seems to be a labor of love for a play they believe most strongly in. But everything does depend upon the actress playing the central role.

The New York Times Magazine this week published a profile of Ms. Nixon that describes her as “eager to please.”  I felt that eagerness in her performance and found it a bit off-putting.  It seems to me that  Vivian should arrive wrapped in more self-assuredness, even arrogance, especially in the first half before the illness has rubbed away the fa├žade. 

Whether you find Ms. Nixon to be compelling or underpowered will need to be your personal response. For myself, I prefer Emma Thompson’s portrayal in the Mike Nichols filmed version and highly recommend it as an alternative.

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  1. Your review is so off the mark.

    I'll write more in a bit...

  2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.