Margaret Edson’s “Wit” is a rare, rewarding experience virtually guaranteed to restore anyone’s waning belief in the legitimate theater. Kathleen Chalfant’s superb career-topping performance adds to an astonishingly sophisticated and impeccably directed first play.
A triumphant reopening of the Long Wharf Theater’s intimate Stage II under the new artistic directorship of Doug Hughes, “Wit” is an unforgettable play of beauty and tough honesty about the implacable advance of ovarian cancer. Chalfant, best known for her performance in Broadway’s “Angels in America,” shaved her head for the central role here, and it was the least she could do considering the gift the playwright has given her — a playwright no doubt equally grateful for what Chalfant is doing for the play.
“Wit” grew out of Edson’s experiences working in a hospital with cancer and AIDS patients. Originally produced in 1995 by California’s West Coast Repertory Theater, where it was showered with awards by the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle, “Wit” will surely reap other awards.
Directed with unsentimental clarity and compassion by Derek Anson Jones, the production never takes a false step from Chalfant’s entrance in what is a tour de force performance to the final, deeply beautiful scene.
Some theatergoers might find the play too tough in its depiction of pain, medical examinations and treatments, particularly during the penultimate scene in which frantic steps are taken to revive Chalfant’s character. But surely the play’s wondrously human and sympathetic humor, along with Chalfant’s performance as the dying English professor, should win them over.
Commenting on the play as it goes along, Vivian Bearing (Chalfant) tells her tale as she undergoes more than eight months of brutal chemotherapy. She delivers a lecture on a Donne poem, conducts a class, recalls when she first became enamored of words at the age of five, and dwells on the meanings of individual words.
Everything Chalfant does is dry-martini perfect, her uncompromising character, aged 50, growing more and more human as her need for contact and caring increases. Apparently a spinster with almost no friends, she has only one visitor while enduring her illness. The young doctor treating her (Alec Phoenix) is of little emotional help since he treats Bearing, whose course he took in college, as an object of research rather than as a person. It is a none-too-bright nurse (Paula Pizzi) who cares most about the patient.
Although Chalfant is very nearly the whole of “Wit,” the rest of the cast is just fine, notably Phoenix, Pizzi, Walter Charles and Helen Stenborg. Myung Hee Cho’s gleaming hospital set and Michael Chybowski’s dramatic lighting are integral elements of a production of stylization and unblinking realism. Edson’s heartbreakingly funny play and Chalfant’s incomparable performance should be seen well beyond and after New Haven.