Theater Review: An Underwhelming Staging of “Wit”

Although I was disappointed in this Manhattan Theatre Club production, I am, however, very glad to have seen Wit—it is a contemporary classic.

Wit by Margaret Edson. Directed by Lynne Meadow. Presented by the Manhattan Theatre Club at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, New York, New York, through March 11.

By Helen Epstein

Cynthia Nixon stars in the Manhattan Theatre Club production of WIT

For me and for many women I know, there is no worse medical nightmare than ovarian cancer, an “insidious” disease whose early stages (I-III) often go unrecognized by both patient and physician. Diagnosis is usually followed by a punishing course of chemo that sometimes extends the woman’s life, sometimes not. As the protagonist of Wit, Vivian Bearing PhD, says in her introductory remarks, “I die at the end. They’ve given me less than two hours. Then—curtain.”

Wit, the first and currently only play by Margaret Edson, begins with its prickly scholar-heroine in a blue hospital gown and red baseball cap, attached to an IV drip, declaring, “I have Stage IV Metastatic Ovarian Cancer. There is no Stage V.” It is a jolting start for the many audience members who have personal acquaintance with women who have died of ovarian cancer. And it’s an oxymoron worthy of John Donne, whose poetry Dr. Bearing studies, to yoke this excruciatingly painful and intimate material to the pomp and flash of Broadway.

Much about this play and playwright is unusual. Although its protagonist is a university professor, Wit was written by a woman who decided against a career in theater and chose instead to become a kindergarten teacher. Edson finished the play in 1991, when she was 30. She had studied literature and history in college and worked in the cancer unit of a research hospital. Her play is imbued with the perspective of a participant-observer in the rituals of medicine and literary scholarship. Reading about her background, I also think it is also infused with the insights of a professional who works with children and their parents.

Beautifully written and structured, Wit unfolds against the backdrop of John Donne’s Holy Sonnets, which have been the centerpiece of Vivian Bearing’s relatively short scholarly life. She is a character most of us have encountered before: the severe, solitary, ironic college professor who seems to have no ties to other people: no family, no friends, not even an enemy. She has contempt for her dumb, disappointing students as well as the hierarchy of doctors, interns, and nurses to whose control she must succumb.

The dramatic situations—classroom lectures, medical consults, hospital procedures—are also familiar to most of us. The genius of this play is that it has made art of the everyday and commonplace. Wit has become both a popular, international theater success and a teaching vehicle in schools (including medical schools). First produced in 1995, it opened Off-Broadway in 1998, winning its Pulitzer in 1999. An HBO film, directed by Mike Nichols and starring Emma Thompson, won an Emmy Award in 2001.

This is an unusual track record for a play by and about a woman—Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues is the only other drama I could think of that has had such a strong, international impact—and I was glad that the Manhattan Theatre Club revived it. Gifted MTC Artistic Director Lynne Meadow directs, with an excellent design team that includes the exquisitely stark set design of Santa Loquasto. Starring as Dr. Bearing is the intelligent and accomplished Cynthia Nixon, whose work I have long admired.

Despite all the talent that went into this production, however, it left me mostly unmoved and asking questions: Must the demands of the larger audiences and spaces of Broadway always flatten character and simplify complexity? Must actors so exaggerate their gestures as to appear cartoonish? And must the humor that resides in this text degenerate into a television sitcom style that verges on slapstick?

Cynthia Nixon in WIT — her declamatory style suits the professorial character that she plays.

Nixon certainly looks the part of Vivian Bearing, and her declamatory style suits Vivian’s character and profession. She’s excellent at conveying the multiple meanings of her lines to the far reaches of the theater. I found her performance believable throughout her bleak journey from diagnosis, flashbacks to teaching, consultations, chemo, examinations, and, finally, death. But Nixon’s vocal range in this production is narrow, and as a result her rendition of Professor Bearing lacked the full humanity, the nuance and subtlety other actresses have drawn from the character. Her delivery was often shrill, putting me in mind of operatic tenors straining for rather than singing high notes. Perhaps this was a directorial choice, but I found it jarring.

With the exception of Suzanna Bertish, who plays E. M. Ashford, Vivian’s mentor and Donne scholar, with great finesse (notably in the astonishing last part of the play when, instead of reciting Donne to the dying Vivian, she reads from the children’s classic The Runaway Bunny), I found the supporting cast weak, the performers creating types rather than individuals: the Research Intern, the Student, the Nurse. Scenes that might have played with more complicated dynamics—classroom discussions, the recurrent pelvic exams—veered too close to shtick to server the subtleties of the script. Nixon’s performance, flawed as it might be, is in a different class from the others.

Although I was disappointed in this MTC production, I am, however, very glad to have seen Wit and would recommend it to theatergoers who have not had an opportunity to experience it. It’s a contemporary classic: an extraordinary play by an extraordinary playwright that will reward generations of other actors and audiences.

Helen Epstein is author of Joe Papp: An American Life and other books now on Kindle.

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