When the scholarly Dr. Vivian Bearing (Cynthia Nixon) learns she has Stage 4 ovarian cancer, she dissects the process in the same manner she’s spent a lifetime scrutinizing every word and punctuation of the metaphysical Holy Sonnets of John Donne in her specialty world of academia as a teacher.
Mounting the revival of Margaret Edson’s 1999 off Broadway Pulitzer Prize winning play, with sometimes unforgiving comparisons to Kathleen Chalfant who portrayed Dr. Bearing and Emma Thompson who played the role in the movie, was a big step for the Manhattan Theatre Club housed at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre. But the results are positive.
As Dr. Bearing, the brilliant, frail, bald, piercing blue-eyed Cynthia Nixon (in hospital gown and red baseball cap) is both the narrator and character, her cut and dry words resounding with the same emotionless precision as she lets the audience know she will die in less than 2 hours; similar to the same pragmatic, uncaring portrayal as she teaches the importance of commas and semi-colons in the 17th C. poetry class about John Donne’s “Death Be Not Proud” to bored college students in flashbacks.
She is at the hands of the scientific medical community who are using her for a new chemotherapy drug; she is nothing more than a guinea pig as her curt oncologist Dr. Kelekian (Michael Countryman) lays out her eight months of treatment, the horrendous possible side effects using medical terms describing her disease – pernicious and insidious. She grasps at these words with undeniable delight in spite of the circumstances, as they are food for her precise brain. Left with a former student, and very analytical Dr. Jason Posner (Greg Keller), who is now her internist and overseeing her treatment, is ironic. His bedside manner leaves much to be desired as he credits her for sharpening his abilities. Simple humanity has been tossed aside as scientific passion prevails. At times, his character appears too robot-like and unsympathetic. The details surrounding the treatments leave nothing to the imagination.
The real compassion comes from caring Nurse Susie Monahan (Carra Patterson) who is Bearing’s only hospital based link to empathy. Her former teacher, Prof. E. M. Ashford (Suzanne Bertish), seen in one of the flashback scenes critically explaining the essence and wit of John Donne’s poetry, plays the pivotal scene returning as a much older woman to visit Dr. Bearing in her final life’s moments allowing for the needed touch of human kindness and love prior to death as she reads to her from The Runaway Bunny – a book she was bringing to her grandchild. Make sure you have your hankie ready.
The play is directed by Lynne Meadow with the subtle intensity it deserves as it flows seamlessly from scene to scene. Ms. Nixon’s portrayal makes us momentarily forget her rough character in the TV series ‘Sex and the City” as her Dr. Bearing transforms from cold and precise to soft and soulful. Is it only when facing death that the façade finally breaks?
The austere and simplistic set design by Santo Loquasto is just right, aided by Peter Kaczorowski’s lighting.
“Wit” is at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, West 47th Street – One hour and 40 minutes, no intermission.