After winning every award under the sun, including the 1999 Pulitzer, and receiving hundreds of productions in dozens of languages, “Wit” has finally made it to Broadway. The correction of this oversight comes too late, alas, to recapture Kathleen Chalfant’s phenomenal star turn in the original production. Nonetheless, Manhattan Theater Club’s revival of Margaret Edson’s metaphysical hospital drama registers the power of its emotions and features a sensitive performance from Cynthia Nixon as a brilliant but unfeeling academic who discovers her humanity when she’s dying of cancer.
Edson, an elementary schoolteacher who never wrote another play after penning this extraordinary work, makes Dr. Vivian Bearing (Nixon) pay big-time for the crime of loving literary scholarship more than she cared about her students.
In a series of meticulously well-built flashback scenes set at an unidentified university, Vivian is seen at various stages of her career studying and teaching the work of John Donne, the most esteemed and abstruse of 17th century Metaphysical poets. “Nothing but a breath — a comma — separates life from life everlasting,” she learns from her academic mentor, played with intellectual gusto by Suzanne Bertish.
This morbid expertise in the metaphysics of life and death should be a big help, Vivian wryly observes, when she learns that she is in the final stage of metastatic ovarian cancer and begins experimental treatment at a research hospital.
As hard as she tries, Nixon doesn’t get the raw pain — or the sheer fury — behind Vivian’s savagely ironic wit. Intellectual sarcasm is simply not the forte of this likable thesp, and she’s not at her best in these early slash-and-burn scenes when Vivian is desperately drawing on the strength of her towering intellect to see her through the non-poetic realities of her oncoming death.
But as the treatments intensify, causing Vivian’s indomitable will to weaken and her formidable defenses to crack, Nixon grabs the role with both hands, restoring Vivan’s dignity and giving her the strength to die.
Edson once worked in the cancer and AIDS wards of a research hospital, so there’s a grim sense of reality to the hospital scenes. Santo Loquasto’s abstract set pieces assemble and reassemble themselves with efficient fluidity through accelerated scene changes timed to the breathless pace set by helmer Lynne Meadow.
In this dehumanizing setting, Vivian sheds her identity and becomes objectified as experimental material — a lab rat to doctors who have lost sight of their research subjects as human beings. Only a sympathetic nurse (played with delicacy by Carra Patterson) sees the test subject in the hospital gown as a human being.
Edson’s humanistic thesis has made “Wit” a popular teaching tool in medical ethics. But the scribe’s broader point is that academic scholarship can be just as heartless as experimental medicine, so each crisply written scene draws some parallel between purely analytic medical protocols and the equally cold-blooded academic devotion to pure form. Nixon’s time comes when the teaching points have all been made and Vivian is allowed to recover her lost humanity. Head shaven, haunted eyes staring out from under a jaunty red baseball cap, the thesp navigates Vivian through the final stages of her life with eloquent compassion. Her finest moment arrives when Vivian finally acknowledges the limitations of her intellect — “I thought being extremely smart would take care of it,” she says, “but I’ve been found out” — and learns how to suffer.