One might be concerned that a play about a woman dealing with ovarian cancer would be at best dull, at worst depressing. How welcome it is, then, that for most of its hour and a half length, playwright Margaret Edson’s Wit fulfills the promise of its title.
Vivian Bearing (Cynthia Nixon), a scholar who devoted her life to the exacting study of the work of 17th Century metaphysical poet John Donne, confronts cruel paradoxes – and great physical pain – as she becomes the subject of research after she agrees to be part of an experimental treatment for her cancer.
Fun stuff, right? Actually, surprisingly, for the most part Wit is fun. Dr. Bearing is not the sentimental type and her toughness, and, yes, wit, keep the story from being more maudlin or depressing than it has to be. Edson’s writing exquisitely walks the line between erudition and accessibility, neither insulting the audience’s intelligence nor talking down to it. As Bearing’s condition worsens, her welling emotions come across in a way that is truly affecting, rather than maudlin. The play lingers for a little too long after it has completed its story and made its points, but this is a quibble with a mostly tight, lean piece of writing.
Nixon does a terrific job of communicating the intellectual rigor of which Vivian is rightly proud. I found myself wishing that she would put across more of the passion and joy of scholarship, but that could just be my own sentimentality as the son of two college professors coming to the surface. Director Lynne Meadow smartly lets Edson’s sophisticated words do the heavy lifting, setting them in a production that finds its power in its simplicity. Wit certainly isn’t a laugh riot, but it is a smart, ruefully funny show that offers many rewards.
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