Tuesday, January 31, 2012

On Broadway: 'Wit": Donne Too Soon

Cynthia Nixon in Margaret Edson's Wit (photo by Joan Marcus)
Starring Cynthia Nixon
Written by Margaret Edson
Directed by Lynne Meadow
Previews began January 5, 2012; opened January 26; closes March 11
Friedman Theatre, 261 West 47th Street, New York, NY

Margaret Edson has written only one play, but what a play! Wit has everything in such abundance--sympathetic characterizations, corrosive insight, lacerating psychology, welcome gallows humor in the face of impending mortality--that only a disastrous staging would undermine these sundry virtues. The new Manhattan Theatre Club production gives an excellent account of one of the best plays of the past two decades.

Vivian Bearing, an esteemed but notably difficult poetry professor, teaches the Holy Sonnets of John Dunne, the early 17th century metaphysical poet who tackled life’s great mysteries--death, the afterlife, the existence of God--with such forcefulness and precision that he, in the words of one character, “makes Shakespeare sound like a Hallmark card.”

Vivian, who has just been diagnosed with Stage 4 ovarian cancer, realizes to her dismay that all her erudition and intellect--which includes endlessly reciting and analyzing Donne’s immortal works--are no help when coming face-to-face with the insidious disease and invasive chemotherapy which destroy her body, while her mind--keen as ever--is trapped. The words that always came so easily to her are useless against such opponents.

This might sound dreary, even boring, but Edson smartly backs up her title by having the hyper-articulate Vivian narrate her own story, warning us that the play--and her life--will end within two hours (it’s actually 100 minutes). She guides us through everything that happens at the hospital--invasive procedures, heartless research doctors’ discussions, talks with sympathetic nurses--alongside flashbacks to her early life and classroom discussions with her not-so-learned undergrad students.

Edson’s biting and bitter humor underlines the true pathos of Vivian’s losing battle, as the accomplished professor discovers that merely understanding Donne’s challenging poetry in the abstract fails when the fearsome reality of mortality rears its head. Edson’s brilliant balance between Vivian’s gargantuan life force and the brick wall that her cancer quickly becomes is such that, even at its bleakest, Wit remains optimistic and humane.

Lynne Meadow’s forceful staging is greatly assisted by Santo Loquasto’s spare but striking design, including moveable walls that reveal ever-mounting hospital horrors behind them. Happily, Michael Countryman and Greg Keller don’t overdo the doctors’ single-minded interest in Vivian as a mere research subject, Carra Patterson makes a sweetly personable nurse and Suzanne Bertish is nicely restrained as Vivian’s own professor, whose climactic hospital visit--as Donne is sidestepped for The Runaway Bunny--provides a devastating moment of catharsis.

My memory of Kathleen Chalfant in the original 1998 off-Broadway production is so strong that I was initially hesitant to accept Cynthia Nixon as Vivian. With her bald head protruding from a long, swan-like neck, Nixon first seems tentative, her speaking voice sounding affected rather than affecting. But she soon settles down and gives the role the emotional and physical investment it begs for, catching the humor, heartbreak and humiliation of this woman and her battered body.

Wit ends with the ultimate triumph: a final, shattering image of a nude Vivian released from her suffering gives Edson’s masterpiece an awesome (in both senses of the word) coda.

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