Margaret Edson's WIT is a brilliant play, but like many fine plays, it is one that is at times painful to watch. A middle-aged university professor, a specialist on the metaphysical poetry of John Donne, finds out that she has ovarian cancer. For the rest of the play's one and three quarter hours, we watch the professor be reduced from a chilly, independent authority figure to a lab rat for cancer researchers to a dependent child. Edson has captured what a lot of people with advanced cancer go through. Fortunately for her audiences, she has also created a fascinating character. Vivian Bearing (symbolic name) represents one type of an older generation of female scholars: a force in a traditionally male preserve, a demanding intellectual who is not adept at human relations or empathy. Actually audiences are more fascinated with characters like Vivian these days than they were when the play was first produced. Just look at all the anti- or non- social characters now appearing on television: Dr. Greg House, Sheldon on THE BIG BANG THEORY, Temperance on BONES, and on British tv Doc Martin and the latest, delightful iteration of Sherlock Holmes (Benedict Cumberpatch on television, not Robert Downey, Jr. on film), among others. We are fascinated with brilliant characters who can't relate to other people. None of these (except, perhaps Sherlock Holmes in the finale of series 2) is humiliated the way Vivian is. She is even denied a dignified death by the medical establishment.
There's definitely an element of gender politics in WIT. The dehumanizing medical establishment is represented totally by male doctors (most of the specialists I go to are women). The only compassionate figures are a Black female nurse and an older female colleague. Edson wants us to see the parallels between the chilly way Vivian treats her students and the way the doctors treat her (the younger doctor, totally lacking in bedside manner, was a student of hers). Her body is merely a text to them as Donne's poetry is a text to Vivian. We get a little bit of John Donne's poetry -- not enough to scare off people who don't know his work, but enough to show its power and its difficulty.
The success of a production of WIT depends on the actress performing Vivian. She never leaves the stage. Many of her lines are spoken directly to the audience which creates a rapport, but we must feel Vivian's chilliness while feeling empathy with her. Cynthia Nixon performs the role as if it were written for her. She has always been best at playing intelligent women (she was the brightest of the four pals on SEX AND THE CITY). Her voice isn't one of the strongest -- in the front of the mezzanine I lost some of her words (perhaps this is a result of days of amplified musicals) but this is a superb performance that should gain Nixon a Tony. The supporting cast all play their roles convincingly. I particularly admired Greg Keller's performance as the young researcher, Jason Posner. He was a perfect foil for Nixon's Vivian -- totally dedicated to his research but caring little about then human beings he had to deal with. There was nothing the least bit stagey about his performance. Lynn Meadow's direction on Santo Loquasto's simple revolving set was all that one could ask for. If I had any qualms, it was that WIT works better in a more intimate theatre than a Broadway house. Because of the size of the theatre, the pace had to be a bit slower than is good for the play and one didn't feel quite the same connection to the characters. Nonetheless, Margaret Edson has given the theatre one of the best female characters written since the heyday of Tennessee Williams. WIT is a play well worth reviving and this production more than does it justice.
WIT by Margaret Epson. Samuel J. Friedman Theatre. January 14, 2012.