It feels odd to recommend a play where the character dies and we know that before we enter the theatre. (Come to think of it we do that all the time with Shakespeare….) Nevertheless, get thee to this theatre.
This production is seamless. And, as with most theatre, it begins with the text. This is a confluence of excellence that begins with the word and ends with you handing over your heart tied up in a ribbon. Like Dr. Vivian Bearing (Cynthia Nixon) the playwright Margaret Edson (this is her one and only play – see here for her interview with Jim Lehrer – in 1999 http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/entertainment/jan-june99/edson_4-14.html) is all about the text and the people who devote their lives to it. In a flashback to childhood we see the moment when Bearing fell in love with words. Further on, we see the moment where she falls in love with John Donne and his wit. Her professor E. M. Ashford (the excellent Suzanne Bertish) examines the poetry of Donne with grammatical tweezers and suggests that anyone not interested in this scholarly specificity take up Shakespeare instead of Donne. She dismisses Bearing’s first scholarly attempt at a paper on Donne thusly,
"Begin with the text, Miss Bearing, not with a feeling."
And from that moment on, it is Bearing’s life journey. Until she is de-railed by the cancer that did not ask permission to enter.
Cynthia Nixon, in two hospital gowns, socks and red baseball cap covering her bald noggin, speaks to us directly. She is Dr. Vivian Bearing, a professor of poetry. She takes offence when people use language inappropriately. People’s words are mindless even in the direst circumstances. Bearing tells us that they ask her, “How are you feeling today?” when it is clear that she is a cancer patient in a hospital receiving chemotherapy. She says:
"I am waiting for the moment when someone asks me this question and I am dead. I’m a little sorry I’ll miss that."
Welcome to her last few hours on the planet.
Bearing is her own tour guide through her medical hurdles on the way to her own death and the journey she cannot help making into her past. Up until this point Dr. Bearing has avoided self-reflection in favor of study. Everything that she does not consider about herself she considers in spades about John Donne. But as her body is proceeding with the plans it has made without her, Vivian Bearing’s past surfaces like a coastal whale.
Lynn Meadow has set a swift but gentle pace that is punctuated by humor and irony as well as the constant tick of the clock and the clinical element of Bearing’s treatment. As we move back and forward in time we never forget the destination. Dr. Kelekian (Michael Countryman) and his tunnel-visioned assistant Dr. Posner (Greg Keller) – a former student of Bearing’s - recommend a course of treatment that could kill Bearing and will probably not save her. But a cancer patient is a research tool, after all.
It takes every micro particle of strength for Bearing to, well, bear with this regimen. As we watch, Bearing is transformed from a professor into something she never wanted to be: a human being.
Nixon balances on that razor’s edge of death and life with the skill of a tightrope walker. Through her we gain entry in to Bearing’s mind and heart and soul. Nixon is surrounded by an extraordinary supporting cast, who guide her through the maze of this passage and bring the every day life into brilliant relief.
There was a lot of snuffling going on in the audience the day I was there. I thought about my mother who died recently. As I watched her over her last months and days I realized that, although we were there with her, hers was ultimately a solitary path. We could be her honor guard, but not her proxy. The steps, especially the final ones, were hers alone.
Margaret Edson has written a play that brings us directly into that journey of one. This production of Wit does Ms. Edson more than proud. This is intimacy without melodrama. This is gut-thumping life without clarification. This is death, not proud, nor mighty and dreadful, but filled with life.
Ben Brantley for NY Times
"Taut and engaging."
Joe Dziemianowicz for NY Daily News
"You admire her Vivian (cynthia Nixon), but you don’t necessarily empathize with her."
Elisabeth Vincentelli for New York Post
"Be sure to bring your handkerchiefs."
David Sheward for Back Stage
"'Wit,' ..., is a very good play. Cynthia Nixon's brilliant, funny, shattering performance makes it a great theatrical experience."
Robert Feldberg for The Record
"Ms. Edson's (playwright) masterwork has been done proud."
Roma Torres for NY1
"The scale of the Samuel J. Friedman Theater may be too large for the subtle, relatively intimate “Wit” to resonate completely."
Michael Sommers for Newsroom Jersey
"In every detail, the production is crisp and precise yet emotionally penetrating, just as the play and its central character demand. It’s an uncommonly stirring piece of theater."
David Rooney for The Hollywood Reporter
"Manhattan Theater Club's revival of Margaret Edson's metaphysical hospital drama registers the power of its emotions and features a sensitive performance from Cynthia Nixon."
Marilyn Stasio for Variety
External links to full reviews from popular press...