Margaret Edson’s “Wit” won last year’s Pulitzer Prize for drama, and it was clearly a deserving choice. Although the play premiered at the South Coast Rep in 1995, it was director Derek Anson Jones’ production at the Long Wharf Theater in New Haven that traveled to New York and now makes it way to the Geffen Playhouse. The fact that Jones died from AIDS last week adds another layer of context to this highly layered work about death. An intelligent play, a deeply felt production, and, above all, a beautifully textured performance by Kathleen Chalfant make this “Wit” a penetrating, satisfying experience.
Vivian Bearing, as she likes to tell us, is a renowned scholar of 17th century poetry, with a special expertise in the dense and difficult sonnets of John Donne. Clearly a professor who enjoys giving her students a hard time — she can certainly be overbearing — she is forced to confront her own mortality when diagnosed with advanced ovarian cancer, the horrific treatment for which she must endure.
Vivian tries as best she can to cooperate with the doctors who treat her purely as a research subject. After all, she had always preferred research to dealing with human beings, and at first Vivian deals with her cancer only as an abstraction, as something to be studied, even perhaps linguistically deconstructed. She has an especially nuanced relationship with the young doctor Jason Posner (Alec Phoenix), who actually took her class (it looked good on his application for med school) and who shares Vivian’s total lack of interest in displays of compassion.
But as Vivian’s body disintegrates under intensive chemotherapy, her inability to intellectualize the situation compels her to re-examine her own priorities, recognizing above all that, while there’s certainly great enjoyment to be gleaned from the extraordinarily complex “wit” of metaphysical poetry, there are times that cry out for simplicity and basic demonstrations of human kindness. This empathy is embodied in Vivian’s nurse, Susie Monahan (Paula Pizzi), who helps her proudly independent patient deal with the transition to complete dependence that comes with physical decay.
The play has a purposefully self-conscious bent, and Vivian comments often on her own story, even once suggesting that she’s not sure this is a performance that she would wish to attend. In some ways that’s understandable: Watching someone convincingly portray a dying person can be more a pathetic experience than a cathartic one. But no plot description can quite capture the enormous power that “Wit” generates in its amazing balance of the complex and the simple, the highly cerebral and the purely emotional, the sentimental and the ironic, the humorous and the harrowing.
While the play winds down for too long toward the end, and even relies on an unnecessary bit of hospital melodrama to wrap up, it finds its fullest expression in a scene that cannot easily be forgotten. Nearing death, Vivian receives her only outside visitor, E.M. Ashford, who had been her mentor and had first introduced her to the joys of poetic exactitude. Played without a touch of self-indulgence by the wondrous Anne Pitoniak, Ashford reads her former star pupil a children’s allegory. These two great Donne scholars revel in the story, and this unadorned interaction represents the culmination of Edson’s vision — a moment neither sentimental nor reserved, simple but profound.
A language play in the best sense of the phrase, “Wit” requires a lead performance that is specific, grounded and yet oddly ethereal. Chalfant effortlessly conveys the gradual physical decline of the character, yet keeps the audience focused on Vivian’s thoughts and changing views. Most importantly, she captures the tone of the piece perfectly, discovering the character’s new-found humility without ever resorting to gratuitous mushiness. It is, without question, a memorable and meaningful performance.
Myung Hee Cho’s set, consisting primarily of hospital curtains; Michael Chybowski’s subtly elegant lighting; and Ilona Somogyi’s graceful costume design all contribute prominently but never draw undue attention. Jones deserves significant credit for creating a production in which all of the elements work together seamlessly.