I thought I was prepared for Wit when I entered the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre. I had seen countless plays about illness throughout my career as an entertainment writer. Last season alone I was deeply moved and inspired by Angels in America, Parts 1 and Part 2, and I was reduced to a sobbing mess after watching the incredible production of The Normal Heart that briefly ran on Broadway in the spring. I actually thought nothing could move me more deeply than that play did. But the Manhattan Theatre Club’s production of Wit was an entirely different experience.
Written by Margaret Edson, and inspired by her work in a hospital oncology unit, Wit is the story of Vivian Bearing, an English professor who is diagnosed with Stage 4 ovarian cancer. After agreeing to undergo experimental treatment for research purposes, she is forced to adjust to becoming an academic subject rather than an academic scholar. Deeply moving and insightful, and starring a luminous Cynthia Nixon, this production, directed by Lynne Meadows, is an accessible, intimate and utterly cathartic experience to watch.
I am a cancer survivor myself, having been treated for Stage 3 thyroid cancer when I was 23 years old. In the years that have passed since my treatment, I have been both amazed and disgusted by different ways the subject is treated in the media. I am the first to admit there is no one right or wrong way to address the illness. Each experience is different, depending on the patient. I find some moments of The Big C to be profoundly insightful while others do not resonate with me at all. I roll my eyes when I see magazine covers featuring airbrushed photographs of celebrities post-treatment, accompanied by a headline of “I Know What’s Important Now” or “I’m Starting Over.” But moment after moment in Wit, thanks to Edison’s insightful script and Nixon’s sarcastic, deliberately theatrical, and incredibly layered performance, hit me so hard that I barely had time to catch my breath and wipe my eyes before another line moved me to tears again.
From the moment Nixon enters the stage, clad in only a hospital gown and socks, and speaks her first line, it is clear that as the character, she is acting. When she is diagnosed, Bearing is an unmarried professor with no children. She is armed only with her intelligence, with which she protects herself ferociously. Her disgust with being asked, “How are you feeling today?” despite her apparent physical condition is the first thing she deconstructs grammatically. Even as she expounds on the irony and subtext of the simple question, one can see how much easier it is for her to express frustration with modern grammar than what with is happening to her body.
Nixon’s ability to convey vulnerability underneath her sarcastic, steely reserve is incredible. It became her distinguishing characteristic on the television show Sex and the City, inspiring countless women to exclaim, “I’m such a Miranda!” after making a sarcastic, cynical or merely blunt and realistic comment. Using sarcasm as a defense mechanism is a common survival trait, especially for people suffering from chronic illness or pain. (While undergoing radiation treatments, I frequently said I hoped I would glow in the dark. What was the point of being radioactive if I didn’t?)
Wit is a surprisingly funny play, and Nixon’s deadpan delivery enhances the script’s humor substantially. She almost brought the house down when, after undergoing a pelvic exam given by a former student of hers, she deliberately and thoughtfully tells the audience, “I wish I had given him an A.”
Cancer treatments have changed since Wit was written, but many of its themes are timeless, especially the dehumanizing effects of the American health care system. Vivian, who had always kept her students at a distance, refusing to even extend a research paper’s deadline when a student’s relative had died, ironically finds herself seeking emotional connections with people who view her merely as research. Her doctors comment repeatedly on how tough she must be, but they are only speaking of her cellular construction and DNA. (Greg Kellor gives an excellent performance as her distracted research physician who wants her to live, merely so he can continue to observe her.) The strong supporting cast also features Michael Countryman as Dr. Kelekian, Vivian’s oncologist and Suzanne Bertish as Dr. E.M. Ashford, who had been Vivian’s academic mentor. Carra Patterson, as Vivian’s nurse, is so naturally comforting and calming that one wonders if she had worked at a hospital before coming to Broadway.
As Vivian’s illness and treatment progress, so do her struggles to accept her newly altered state of life. I often wondered if others found cancer to be as humiliating as I did, or if that was merely another escapist technique. After all, it’s easier to feel humiliated than terrified. But Vivian, the dignified, renowned scholar of the metaphysical poetry of John Donne, also struggled with it. Once distinguished by her intelligence, she now says resignedly, “I am distinguishing myself in my illness.”
A Broadway production of Wit poses several challenges, the first being the ability to give an authentically intimate production in such a large theater. Santo Loquasto’s set, which switches from being a hospital to a lecture hall, and Peter Kaczorowski’s lighting ease that challenge considerably. Then there is the challenge of finding an actress to play Vivian, which is a demanding role for anyone to tackle. Nixon does not exit the stage once throughout the entire production and she is required to switch seamlessly from addressing the audience to interacting with fellow characters onstage. These technical challenges aside, she also must give a believable portrayal of the physical agony she is undergoing while maintaining her dry, acerbic humor.
Her head shaved and covered with a baseball hat, and her pale skin, wide blue eyes and delicate features conveying so much that words can’t, onstage Nixon looks frail and delicate but also steely and reserved. As the show and her illness progress, she is forced to face the utter terror of the unknown, when words and facts are unable to save her. (One of the most revealing moments occurs when, wracked with illness and fear, she lies in her hospital bed and recites the multiplication tables to calm and center herself.)
While being observed by a group of medical scholars, Vivian says, “Once, I did the teaching. Now, I am taught.” But this play, and Nixon’s performance in it, are teaching. They are teaching the audience an invaluable lesson in compassion, empathy and truly incredible acting.