It's hard to believe that Margaret Edson's beautifully written play Wit debuted Off Broadway back in 1998. Starring Kathleen Chalfant and later Judith Light, it ran for more than 500 performances, winning the Pulitzer Prize and many other awards. Chalfant gave a magnificent performance that lingers in the memory. Now it's Cynthia Nixon's turn, and she too gives a fearless, heartfelt performance.
Nixon plays Vivian Bearing, a professor of metaphysical poetry whose specialty is the holy sonnets of John Donne. Smart, no-nonsense and confident, she is a leading scholar who challenges even the brightest students. "I am, in short, a force," she says in one of her many lines directed at the audience. Now Bearing has been diagnosed with stage-four ovarian cancer and is far from being in control of her life. Much of the action takes place in a hospital and includes scenes in which Nixon simulates (very convincingly) being in great pain. It isn't always an easy play to sit through, particularly if one has recently been in a hospital watching a loved one get sicker and die.
Luckily, Edson finds at least as much humor in Vivian's confrontation with death as pathos. The professor naturally sees the irony in the phrase commonly used by doctors as a greeting: "How are you feeling?" Needless to say, a cancer patient undergoing massive amounts of chemotherapy isn't feeling great. Vivian has agreed to undergo the strongest doses in hopes of beating the cancer. What the doctors don't tell her is that even this treatment won't stop it from spreading. Bearing is amused by being a kind of petri dish studied by her head doctor Harvey Kelekian (Michael Countryman), young doctor Jason Posner (Greg Keller) and residents. The process is called "grand rounds," and Vivian wryly observes that the doctors "read me like a book." Despite the humor, Edson's portrait of doctors using patients as guinea pigs is pretty unflattering.
More sympathetic is Vivian's nurse, Susie (Carra Patterson). Only she bothers to ask if Vivian wants to be resuscitated when her heart stops, and the play is at its toughest and most upsetting when Vivian's request is mistakenly ignored. Solitary and devoted to her intellectually rigorous career, Vivian doesn't have any close friends or relatives to visit her. Only her teacher and mentor E.M. Ashford (Suzanne Bertish) visits, and when she does it's too late for a meaningful conversation.
Nixon is best known as one of the Sex and the City gals, but she's been working in theater since her teens, when she appeared in The Real Thing and Hurlyburly simultaneously. The last time she acted in this theater, in Rabbit Hole, she won the Tony Award for best actress. She should be a contender again this year. At first she looks a little young for the role, and it took some time for me to accept her in the part. But as the play progresses, Nixon's performance grows steadily funnier, more engaging and more moving. Although at first glance she doesn't seem to have the bearing and voice the role demands, Nixon's intelligence and sense of humor make her a good fit for Vivian. Whether she's reciting Donne's "Death Be Not Proud" or undergoing an unpleasant exam, Nixon always holds our attention. It's a demanding, draining role, and she rises to the occasion.
As Jason, who took Vivian's class in college and recalls her uncompromising ways, Keller is also terrific. He's especially funny when trying not to be clinical – and invariably asking "How are you feeling today?" Patterson is nicely understated as Susie, and Bertish does a good job with Ashford's 11th-hour hospital visit.
Lynn Meadow, Manhattan Theatre Club's artistic director, stages the play with clinical precision and heart. Both Meadow and Nixon are cancer survivors, and their experiences no doubt contributed to this fine production. Santo Loquasto designed the stark, modern set, which is handsomely lit by Peter Kaczorowski.
Wit is so powerful and gracefully written that it's a shame Edson hasn't written more plays. She worked in cancer and AIDS impatient units at a hospital, earned degrees in history and literature, and currently teaches sixth-grade social studios in Atlanta. I hope that one day she will use her considerable playwriting talents to tackle another subject.