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Wit

Margaret Edson's Pulitzer Prize-winning play about a literature professor undergoing treatment for ovarian cancer retains its power in its first Broadway production.

By New York City
Cynthia Nixon and Carra Patterson in Wit
(© Joan Marcus)
Cynthia Nixon and Carra Patterson in Wit
(© Joan Marcus)
Margaret Edson's moving and insightful play, Wit, currently receiving its Broadway premiere from Manhattan Theatre Club at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, deservedly won the Pulitzer Prize in 1999 for its debut Off-Broadway. But while this revival, directed by Lynne Meadow, ably demonstrates the play's power, star Cynthia Nixon proves less than completely convincing in the lead role.

The work centers on Dr. Vivian Bearing (Nixon), a literature professor who has been diagnosed with stage-four metastatic ovarian cancer. She agrees to undergo an experimental chemotherapy regimen, although the chances for recovery are slim and the treatment is potentially as debilitating as the illness (perhaps more so).

Vivian addresses the audience directly from the outset, narrating the series of procedures she undergoes that are at once dehumanizing and ironically the cause for her awakening to her own humanity. As she wishes for more sympathy from her doctors, Vivian reflects upon how she herself could often be callous to the concerns of her students.

The professor's specialty in the world of academia is the 17th-century metaphysical poetry of John Donne, and in particular his Holy Sonnets. She views Donne's writing as being characterized by a wit that can only be fully revealed through scrupulous study. In many ways, this serves as a metaphor for Edson's own examination of her play's protagonist, suggesting that a closer look into Vivian's persona can yield up its own rewards.

Nixon affects a stern manner of speaking that comes across as forced -- particularly when compared to the ease with which original Off-Broadway star Kathleen Chalfant inhabited the character. And yet, Nixon is still able to demonstrate Vivian's difficult journey within the play, and at times can seem heartbreakingly vulnerable.

Michael Countryman ably conveys the authority of Vivian's primary doctor, Harvey Kelekian, but Greg Keller overplays the bumbling manner of Jason Posner, one of Vivian's former students who is now the clinical fellow overseeing her treatment.

Suzanne Bertish does a great job as Professor E. M. Ashford, who was one of Vivian's own teachers, and whose late-in-the-play visit to her former student is one of the play's finest scenes. (You'll never think about The Runaway Bunny in quite the same way again.) Carra Patterson also makes a strong impression, portraying the pivotal role of nurse Susie Monahan, who handles the demands of her job with both strength and empathy.

But in the end, it's the play itself that shines most brightly. Edson has created a marvelously complex character in Dr. Vivian Bearing, and tells her story with a potent combination of intelligence, compassion, and of course, wit.


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