The new theatrical season has barely raised its curtain, yet it would be surprising indeed if future arrivals reveal a more compelling performance than that of Kathleen Chalfant, or a more potently cogent and illuminating first play than Margaret Edson’s “Wit.”
The play, a searing account of the process of dying, premiered at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa, Calif., in 1995. This production comes from New Haven’s Long Wharf Theater, where, coincidentally, Michael Cristopher’s Pulitzer Prize-winning drama “The Shadow Box” opened over two decades ago.
Dr. Vivian Bearing (Chalfant), a brilliant scholar and teacher of 17 th-century poetry, is bluntly informed by her doctor that she has cancer. An insidious, aggressive, previously undetected ovarian tumor is spreading with savage fury. The patient is subjected to an intensive and grueling eight-month treatment of chemotherapy, reducing her to degrading depths of humiliation. The relentless journey prompts the spunky and unflappable professor to jest, “It would be a relief to be a cheerleader on her way to Daytona for spring break.”
With an abundance of wit and candor, Edson’s intellectual conceit on the quality of life and the indignities of death pits the personal crisis against a verbal tapestry of mythical logic and illusion. John Donne’s “Holy Sonnets” (“Death be not proud…”) becomes the cunning metaphor for the protagonist’s courageous plight. The playwright examines both the absurdities and the horrors of terminal illness with provocative insight.
Delivered in narrative style with classroom flashbacks, the play resonates with lyrical dialogue, punctuated with sudden, viciously funny barbs. It seems the attending physician, Jason Posner (Alec Phoenix), once took an undergraduate course in poetry with Bearing.
While making an invasive pelvic examination as Bearing is embarrassingly confined to foot stirrups,Posner casually relates the merits and challenges of studying poetry to a naive assisting nurse, flippantly adding, “It was tougher than biochemistry!”
From sudden unbearable screams of pain to caustically brittle bites of humor, the stately Chalfant leaves the viewer crying and laughing at the same time. This is a towering and heartbreaking performance: emotionally vivid, nobly honest, disturbing and ultimately unforgettable.
The play is crisply and fluently staged by Derek Anson Jones, and there is keen assistance from Posner’s indecisive young doctor, Paula Pizzi’s sweetly compassionate nurse and Bearing’s wise and comforting mentor, sensitively acted by Helen Stenborg. Lab technicians and students are illustrated by a persuasive and deftly knit supporting acting quartet.
Myung Hee Cho’s stark and sterile hospital set is divided by those claustrophobic white cubicle drapes, and often centered by an uncomfortably ominous mobile IV bag and monitor.